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Adams: Jones Jr. seizes opportunity fate provided

| Sunday, October 13, 2019

It’s safe to say that senior running back Tony Jones Jr. has finally arrived, and all it took was being forced into the spotlight by an injury to junior running back Jafar Armstrong on the opening drive of the season opener at Louisville. Jones, who ran for career-highs of 392 yards and four scores in 12 games last season, had already reached 381 yards and four scores coming into the matchup with the USC Trojans Saturday night, despite only getting six carries for 17 yards in a 66-14 rout of New Mexico.

Jones’ play was of the utmost importance as shades of Oct. 21, 2017 played out during the 30-27 win over USC (3-3, 2-1 Pac-12). Just over two years ago, the then-No. 13 Irish came out on top of the then-No. 11 Trojans 49-14 behind a dominant rushing performance. In fact, the Irish only converted 9-22 passes that entire night for 120 yards. However, they rushed for 377 yards on 47 attempts, racking up 8.0 yards per carry and five touchdowns on the ground.

Erin Fennessy | The Observer
Irish senior running back Tony Jones Jr. looks to maneuver past Trojans redshirt sophomore safety Isiah Pola-Mao during Notre Dame’s 30-27 victory over USC on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Fast forward to Saturday night and the Irish (5-1) relied on yet another great rushing game to lift them to victory over the Trojans, admittedly by a much tighter margin. Notre Dame rushed 48 times for 308 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and two scores, while going 17-32 for 165 yards through the air. While a more balanced offensive performance this time around, the key to the victory was undoubtedly the superiority of the rushing attack. Irish head coach Brian Kelly explained why his squad was so persistent on the ground.

“Well, look, I mean, I could stand up here and BS you guys all day and tell you we’re the second coming of the Green Bay Packers rushing attack,” he said. “But [USC was] in two-deep, so they didn’t want us to throw the football. They didn’t like the match-up early. You saw it. We got a one-on-one match-up early [with senior wide receiver Chase Claypool] and we took advantage of it because they went man and they pressured us.

“They must have said, that’s not going to be the way this game goes. They went two-deep and they gave us some box looks to run the football. We have to be able to offensively, if you’re going to play two-deep, we’ve got to run the football. If we can’t, we’re not good enough. If you’re going to play man and pressure us and load the box, it’s hard to run the football, we’d better be able to throw the football and that effectively is what happened. We had fair numbers to run the football today, and that’s how we won the football game.”

The driver of the rushing success was none other than Jones, who single-handedly recorded more rushing yards (176) than senior quarterback Ian Book did passing, and who for the third time this season has eclipsed 100 yards rushing, setting a new career-high rushing mark in two different games (131 against No. 20 Virginia and 176 against USC) on the year. Jones talked about his mindset during the game.

“Coach let me out of the cage a little bit,” Jones said. “To be honest I saw my line working hard, I saw my tight ends working hard, and I knew I needed to do whatever I had to do. … It felt good that coach had the confidence in me, so I wanted to show him respect to pound the rock.”

Kelly talked about what makes Jones Jr. so special.

“Well, look, Tony has been kind of pigeonholed into this kind of ‘journeyman back,’ but he does so many things well. He just doesn’t have 4.3 speed,” Kelly said. “But he blocks, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s going to get you the extra yard. Who wouldn’t want a back like that?”

Even without that back-breaking speed, Jones’ play style was ideal for the Irish game plan, especially as the game grinded on and they wore down the USC defense.

“We keep doing our job no matter what. After a while, you start wearing them down a bit and eventually you are going to break open some big runs,” Jones said. “During the game they started showing they were tired and beat up, so we kept pounding the rock at them and holes started opening up. And then Book scored [to win the game].”

Along with Kelly, Jones’ teammates also had rave reviews for his performance in this game and for the dedication he has shown for the program. Book said that tonight’s performance is evidence of the hard work that Jones has put in.

“I’m super happy for Tony. I see him work hard every day in practice and work his butt off, so he’s being rewarded for that like he should be,” Book said. “He’s a great tool in our offense and when he keeps doing that it opens up everything else in the passing game.”

Junior tight end Cole Kmet talked about the growth Jones has displayed as a leader.

“I think he’s become more of a leader out there, talking to us and keeping us up and all that stuff,” Kmet said. “So, Tony was great today, he did a really good job.”

Finally, junior offensive lineman Robert Hainsey praised Jones for his toughness and instinct.

“Tony runs as hard as he can every down,” Hainsey said. “I’ve known Tony for a while now and I love Tony to death. He gets up there and he makes our job easy. We get out there, do our job, make our blocks to the best of our ability, and, even if there is not the biggest crease, Tony is going to find it and run past you, over you or through you. That’s what I love about Tony.”

Armstrong, on the other hand, was plagued by injuries last season as well, but played in 10 games and ran for 383 yards on 72 attempts. Armstrong was questionable to make his return against USC, but carried only once for a loss of four yards. While he most certainly will produce more once the coaching staff is 100% confident in his health and he finds a rhythm, the fact that Jones has emerged as a No. 1-option in the backfield has far reaching implications for the Irish, not the least of which is that it almost ensures that Armstrong will return for his senior season, because the coaching staff won’t turn their backs on a guy in Jones who they just gave a career-high in carries to against their biggest rival.

“I didn’t even notice I had 25 carries until the fourth quarter. I haven’t had that since my sophomore year in high school,” Jones said.

Even though the chances of Armstrong going pro after this year were already pretty small, it is a greater comfort that he will be back to mentor young backs like sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and freshman Kyren Williams. But the biggest impact of Jones’ play is that the Irish have a workhorse running back who they can rely on to get necessary yardage and take care of the football. One of the mainstays of Kelly’s successful Irish teams has been a reliable run game, one that admittedly didn’t show up in week 4 against then-No. 3 Georgia but is now hitting its stride, in no small part thanks to Jones.

“It feels good that I am working hard and that it is showing on the field,” he said. “Now I have to keep working harder to make this game look like every game.”

That shouldn’t be too hard with the kind of player and person Kelly says Jones is.

“You know, he plays through nicks and bumps,” Kelly said. “He practices hard. He’s a great teammate. Give me a boat load of Tony Joneses and I’ll take them in a heartbeat.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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