Notre Dame ran the ball 433 times in 2011, collecting 2,085 yards and 25 touchdowns, mostly on the backs of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, who accounted for 21 of those scores. With Gray graduating and moving on to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins through free agency, and Wood suspended for the first two weeks of his senior year, it was unclear how effective the Irish would be on the ground with senior Theo Riddick, who spent the previous two years at slot receiver, leading the way.
Cierre Wood (above), Theo Riddick and the rest of Notre Dame's backfield has broken loose in 2012, picking up where Wood and former ND running back Jonas Gray left off in 2011
Eight games, 1,572 net rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns later, Notre Dame isn’t merely strong running the ball, it’s the program’s identity under third-year head coach Brian Kelly.
Whereas three Irish players registered at least 100 yards on the ground last season (then-sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix had (162), five have eclipsed the century mark this year with five contests remaining. Riddick leads the way with 525 yards and four scores on 114 attempts, Wood has compiled 467 yards and three touchdowns on 72 carries, sophomore George Atkinson III has put up 301 yards and four TDs on 37 takes and sophomore quarterback Everett Golson (with sacks eating into his total) had 145 yards and a score on 53 attempts and sophomore Cam McDaniel owned 114 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries heading into the game against Pittsburgh.
“We’ve got a lot of talent back there,” Riddick said.
That requires more carries to go around, which has been the case in the last four games of the year with 177 total rushing plays compared to 150 through the first four contests.
“We’ve been running the ball all season,” Wood said. “There’s nobody on our schedule or nobody in the country that we think we can’t run the ball against. I don’t care if they’re [rushing defense is] ranked first, it doesn’t matter; we’re going to run the ball regardless.”
The Fighting Irish, ranked 33rd nationally in rushing (196.5 yards per game), ran the ball 36.08 times per game in 2011 and have pushed it to 40.9 carries per week this season. That number should continue to rise against teams like Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest, when the Irish will want to gain control early and pound the ball the rest of the way.
When Kelly’s offense needed first downs, it has gotten them 82 times on the ground opposed to 68 through the air. In 2011, the Irish registered 162 passing first downs and 116 running the ball.
“We wore Stanford down; they didn’t really want to play anymore,” Wood said. “Same thing with BYU. I started noticing their nose tackle wasn’t coming off the ball as hard as he usually does. That’s just credit to us blowing everybody off the ball, and the running backs sticking it in there and getting first down after first down.
“Our O-line … it starts and ends with them. They’re getting the push up front and it’s our job to play off them. We’ve gotten the job done as a unit.”
With Riddick running out of eligibility this year and the possibility of Wood turning pro, this year's emphasis on rushing the ball will pay dividends in years to come. Guys like McDaniel are getting invaluable reps in game situations, and Atkinson III has performed well in meaningful moments.
"You just get used to the game and how they play and things like that," Atkinson said of his 28 extra carries so far this season compared to 2011. "If we had to pass the ball more I wouldn’t be seeing the field as much just because the fact that the coaches don’t really trust me to run routes.
"I’m enjoying the experience this year and getting more carries and stuff like that."