Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – After seven 100 yard performances in 2005, Darius Walker had yet to eclipse the century mark through four contests in 2006 – until today. Charlie Weis and the offensive coaching staff committed to establishing the run on Saturday and the result was a 31 carry, 146 yard outburst highlighted by a 14 yard second quarter touchdown run.
In the previous three games, Walker gained just 111 yards on 41 carries and failed to reach the endzone. The Irish ground game was anemic most of those three games and as a result, all aspects of the Notre Dame offense struggled.
Early deficit’s played a role in the ineffectiveness of the rushing attack for Notre Dame the last two weeks, but even three weeks ago in a blowout of Penn State, the Irish managed just 67 yards (without the 43 yards gained on the fake punt).
“I just felt that the last two weeks as the play caller, I gave up on the running game because we got behind. And I just made a commitment along with our staff and our players that we are going to make the running game go no matter what happened, we were going to make the running go,” said Weis when asked about the Irish commitment to the run this week.
The commitment Weis was willing to make to the run was evident from the opening whistle when the Irish ran the ball six of seven times on their opening drive which ended with a George West 11 yard reverse. On that first drive, the only pass came on a screen to Walker who ended the game with nine catches for 74 yards.
“I think it was seven plays with seven, or six runs and a screen. So when you can come out there and say you’re going to establish the run and run it on every down, you’re usually have a good chance,” commented Weis on that opening drive.
Even on the second drive of the game, a drive that netted a three and out, the commitment to the run was easy to see. The Irish ran on first and second down for negative seven yards (-7) and then ran it again on third down for 14 yards. The drive ended with no points, or even a first down, but it showed that the Irish were determined to run the game regardless.
The official statistics show the Irish ended with just 138 total yards on the ground because of a loss of 31 yards due to four Purdue sacks.
The sudden success of the Notre Dame running game started up front where the Irish offensive line really had a nice game. On a lot of Walker’s runs, the push the line was getting was pretty clear. While Walker got stuff for a couple losses, the line did a great job of creating lanes for the junior tail back to run through.
Despite the improvement seen this weekend on the ground for the Irish, there is still a lot of work to be done before Notre Dame has a legitimate rushing offense that they can depend on and the major concern here is still depth.
Darius Walker remains the only back that Notre Dame uses until the end of games. Backup Munir Prince, a true freshman, saw just two carries on Saturday after not carrying the ball once last week. Fellow freshman, James Aldridge, was available to play this week for the first time, but was held out by Weis.
When asked of the absence of Aldridge, who many Irish fans are eagerly awaiting, “James might have been a good person to work on that end of the game stuff, it might have been a good time, but I’m just envisioning, here’s a guy just coming off a knee, they got a 1800 guys up on the line of scrimmage and I’m going to go ahead and get his head ripped off on the first couple carries. I figured I would rather not do that and I would rather find a better time to go ahead and do that.”
He would go on to add that, “James is just coming back. You got to earn your stripes at this place. We don’t hand anything to anyone. When he earns his stripes, he’ll be out there.”
While the talented freshman back was cleared to play, he was still held out of contact drills this week which probably made Weis leery of putting him in a game being played on a wet field after coming off a knee injury.
Until the Irish can develop some depth at running back behind Walker, they will continue to need huge performances from Brady Quinn and the Notre Dame passing game when they face other top teams. If you look at other tops teams, they almost all have multiple running backs they can use. Michigan has Mike Hart and Kevin Grady, Ohio State has Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells, and USC has about 40 different talented running backs they can use.
Notre Dame still has plenty of games to work on the rushing attack and while this weekend’s effort is a good start, there is still plenty of work left to do.