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Thomas: Pounding the rock: New-look Irish offense built for long-term success

| Friday, October 9, 2020

Last season, after a somewhat underwhelming season opener, Notre Dame welcomed an overmatched New Mexico State squad to Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish pounded the Lobos 66-14. After struggling to establish offensive consistency at Louisville 12 days earlier, then-senior quarterback Ian Book tossed for 360 yards and five touchdowns.

Observer File Photo

Irish sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton races to the end zone after an interception in his first game at Notre Dame Stadium on Sep. 14 where they beat New Mexico 66-14 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Ten different Irish players had a reception as Notre Dame worked out the kinks in its passing game, taking deep shots and opening up its offensive scheme. Meanwhile, the rushing attack took a relative backseat. They accumulated just 157 yards on the ground — 87 of which came from the three different Irish quarterbacks to play in the game. 

This season, after underwhelming in a 27-13 victory over Duke to start the year, Notre Dame hosted its lone non-conference opponent of the year: South Florida. Many expected to see offensive coordinator Tommy Rees open up the passing game once more against an inferior squad, allowing third-year starter Book to establish a connection with a largely unproven wide receiver corps.

Rather, Book attempted just 19 passes in a little more than one half of action, completing 12 of them for 144 yards. He didn’t deliver a scoring strike with his arm, running for three short touchdown runs. He let his backfield do much of the damage, as sophomore Kyren Williams, freshman Chris Tyree and junior C’Bo Flemister combined for 254 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The result was largely the same, as Notre Dame thrashed USF 52-0, but the showing raised a lot of questions. 

Is this run-heavy approach the new-look Irish attack? And, if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing? 

To me, it seems likely that Brian Kelly and Rees are putting an emphasis on the run game this year given their scheme against the Bulls. While it’s possible that getting graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek back into the mix is a game-changer, the cupcake game against USF would have been a great opportunity to give guys like juniors Joe Wilkins and Lawrence Keys a chance to haul in some catches at the receiver position (although the latter was listed as absent for the game against USF).

Rather, the Irish went for a run-heavy approach, demonstrating the depth of their backfield in the process. Ultimately, I think this approach is a great change for the Irish offense, and it’s one that is much more sustainable for a potential playoff run. 

If you want to dredge up painful memories, think about Notre Dame’s ugly loss to Michigan last year. In a rainy, cold game in which passing the ball was a struggle, the Irish were not equipped to run the ball well. They got 29 yards from their top two running backs on 13 attempts, paving the way to a blowout loss. In their loss to Georgia, the Irish mustered just 46 yards on the ground. 

The theme stays with the Irish over the past few years, as Notre Dame has consistently failed to spark their running attack in big games, relying on its quarterback and defense to bring home the win. Notre Dame has not proven to be successful with this form and as good as Book can be, his inconsistencies keep him off the same level as guys like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, elite quarterbacks on national championship contenders.

The early-season trend in Notre Dame’s playcalling suggests that Kelly and Rees are attempting to buck this curse by establishing a dynamic ground game early in the year. An adaptable coaching staff is a sight for sore eyes after years of watching Notre Dame develop an approach that would consistently beat lower-level teams while struggling to even be competitive against top-tier opponents.

This weekend, the theory that Notre Dame is becoming a run-first team will be put to the test as Notre Dame hosts Florida State. As bad as the Seminoles have been this year, they have not given up more than 64 rushing yards to an individual back. However, they gave up 200 total rushing yards to Miami as five different players ran the ball at least four times, combining to average 5.4 yards per pop.

The Irish boast a versatile set of backs, and if they come out pounding the rock against the Seminoles on Saturday, expect that this offense is entering a new age built towards achieving the glory that hasn’t graced this program since 1988.

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

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