Notre Dame, IN – (UHND.com) – For the third time this year the Notre Dame offense was held to under 100 yards rushing with a 41 yard effort this past weekend against UCLA. A lack of a running game has become a persistent problem for the Irish this year and it is the reason the Irish offense has been packing a few less punches this year.
Last year the Irish offense was held under 100 yards on the ground three times the entire season, but through seven games Notre Dame has matched that mark of futility already. As a result of this lack of rushing offense, opposing defenses have been able to tee off on Brady Quinn and blitz the Heisman hopeful at will.
In the three games in which the Irish failed to top the century mark rushing the ball, Brady Quinn has been harassed to the tune of 10 sacks in those three games, highlighted by a five second effort by the Bruins this past weekend.
What exactly is causing the lack of production on the ground? The Irish returned four offensive linemen with over 90 combined starts, Darius Walker was coming off his first 1,000 yard season of his career, and the Irish passing game which was explosive last year should be keeping defenses honest.
Instead, the Notre Dame offense line has struggled all season, Darius Walker has ran for over 100 yards just twice through seven games after reaching that mark twice as many times at this point last year, and Brady Quinn has been sacked only two fewer times so far this year than he was all of last year.
All of these signs point to a lot of different areas to blame for the struggles in the running game. And therein lies the problem in trying to fix the grounded running game for the Irish – there is no simple fix.
When asked on Sunday about the problems facing his running game, Weis said, “If I had the answer to that, I would have solved it before we played.” He would go on to add, “It wasn’t like it was any great scheme that we had or they had, I think just physically they won the battle yesterday.”
Being physically outplayed along the line is only part of the problem. Yes, the offensive line has under-achieved this year. Much was expected out of this veteran group, and they have failed to live to the high expectations, but the lack of depth at running back has also played a major role in the struggles running the ball as well.
Saying Darius Walker has a heavy work load might be the under statement of the year. Right now, there simply isn’t another running back Weis feels comfortable putting in the game to spell Walker and as a result, Walker is wearing down fast.
Say whatever you want about Walker, and some of the criticism he has taken is more than justified, but any running back forced to play as much as Walker is going to be slowed down.
There have been times when Walker has had holes that have closed quickly that he simply has not hit hard enough. Part of the reason being that he tends to be a “patient” back that doesn’t hit the hole hard, but part of it also has to be the wear and tear he has been taking this year.
Last season Notre Dame used backup Travis Thomas for whole series at a time in most games, but this season with two freshmen backing up Walker, Weis has been reluctant to put them in the game during many crunch time situations. This lack of depth which was created by transfers (Justin Hoskins) and lack of recruiting is going to continue to cause the Irish problems.
With Navy, North Carolina, Army, and Air Force up next on the Irish schedule, it will be imperative for the Irish offense to score a lot of points so that Munir Prince and James Aldridge can get some more carries and get worked into the offense more.
For the Irish to have any chance against USC and in whatever bowl game they land in, they are going to have to be able to run the ball better. Developing some depth and having fresh legs at the running back position will make the offensive line look better as they won’t be expected to hold their blocks as long throughout the game.
The wild card in helping the running game is the deep passing game. Last year the Irish were able to hit deep passes down the field consistently from week to week. This year, Notre Dame has been forced to dink and down the field which has allowed opposing safeties to play close to the line of scrimmage which in turn makes it harder to run.
The lack of a vertical passing attack is also not an easy fix as part of the problem lies with the offensive line not giving Quinn enough time as well as a lack of true speed wide receiver to stretch defenses. There’s been some chances to make plays down field this year that the Irish have missed. One that sticks out is the double fake reverse pass to Rhema McKnight this past weekend. Quinn has McKnight wide open behind the defense and the two failed to connect.
The common denominator in these offensive struggles, however, do all point back to the offensive line. At the end of the day, games are won and lost in the trenches, and despite a 6-1 record for this season, Notre Dame is losing that battle more often than they did a year ago.