Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 9, 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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54 OCT. 9, 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED N o matter how much football evolves or changes over the de- cades, a coaching axiom that re- mains timeless in providing the best opportunity to success is "run the ball and stop the run." There is seldom one end-all, be-all answer to anything, but this one is close. Not long after Notre Dame's 31-28 Music City Bowl victory versus No. 22 LSU to finish the 2014 season 8-5, then-Fighting Irish offensive co- ordinator Mike Denbrock (now at the University of Cincinnati) gave his manifesto on what the identity of the football operation should be. It came on the heels of racking up 263 rushing yards and 5.2 yards per carry against a Tigers defense that had been earmarked by its physi- cality. In that month of preparation following a four-game losing streak, Notre Dame made a commitment with new quarterback Malik Zaire and a burgeoning offensive line to be much more physical at the point of attack after averaging a modest 151.4 yards per game on the ground. "I hope it wasn't game specific," Denbrock said of the LSU contest in which the Irish ran 51 times while passing 26 times. "It's the way Notre Dame should play football every Saturday: Line up, physicality, lean- ing on the big boys up front to cre- ate space for the running backs and getting the ball in space to some skilled receivers. ... Playing sound, fundamental football. When I think of Notre Dame football, that's what I think of, and that's really what we're trying to get to." Overall, that carried over into the 2015 season in which the Irish finished No. 11 in ground offense (third-highest ranking since 1994). The 207.6-yard rushing average was the highest since 1998, and the run game was propelled by a couple of top NFL picks (offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley in the first round and Nick Martin in the second), a deep stable of backs led by C.J. Prosise (1,032 yards rushing) and freshman Josh Adams (835 yards), plus a bona fide running threat at quarterback in DeShone Kizer (525 yards). A lot like 2017, in other words. The physicality aspect took a de- tour last season with a rebuilding line, but head coach Brian Kelly and first-year offensive coordinator Chip Long are playing once again to the strengths of this year's team, which includes a veteran offensive line with at least two top NFL prospects, a dy- namic ground game and a new quar- terback with running skills getting broken into the offense. Through four games, the red-zone offense remained tied for No. 1 na- tionally (highlighted by 17 touch- downs on its 19 attempts), while the rushing offense was No. 7 at 293.5 yards per game, both unusually high figures that likely won't be sustain- able over a 12-game regular season. Especially uplifting during that time to Kelly was the fact that the Irish tallied 16 rushing touchdowns while allowing only one. During last year's 4-8 campaign, the Irish scored merely 18 rushing touchdowns while permitting 23. Kelly said the improvement can be traced to one of the simplest precepts in coaching: You achieve what you emphasize. "The way we've prepared this foot- ball team since January, it is focused on that fundamental principle of physicality, and running the football and being great against the run. This has been intentional from January in terms of what I wanted this to look like," he said. "It would not be, in my estimation, successful if we had 16 rushing touchdowns and 16 given up. "We want the differential. Making the changes that I made, it's been about this intentional crafting of what we wanted to look like. That's what we look like right now — and we've still got some work to do." In the past 20 years (1997-2016), Notre Dame averaged at least 200 yards rushing only four times during the regular season: 1998, 2000, 2012 and 2015. The combined record in those years was 40-6 (.870). Interestingly, each season was pro- pelled by a new quarterback (Jari- ous Jackson, Matt LoVecchio, Everett Golson and DeShone Kizer) who "forced" the Irish to run more and be more physically oriented. Is a physical ground attack or even a 200-yard rushing average the elixir or silver bullet to football prosperity? By itself, absolutely not. It takes far more: Defense, special teams, pass- ing balance, coaching, recruiting to a system … But it's not a coincidence that the pattern in the past, present and most likely in the future supports Den- brock's contention that Notre Dame football is much more often at its best with rushing excellence. ✦ The Value Of Physicality THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at Senior left guard Quenton Nelson (56) and fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey (68) have helped pave the way for a rushing attack that ranked seventh nationally with an average of 293.5 yards per game after the season's first four weeks. PHOTO BY COREY BODDEN

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