Cierre Wood Pitt

Wood and Gray are running to a historic season


Tango and Cash. Turner and Hooch. Murtaugh and Riggs. HollyWood and Meatball.

The last duo might not have the notoriety yet, but it hasn’t been for a lack of effort by Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. At the midway point of the 2011 season, Wood (nickname still pending) and Gray (Meatball has already stuck) haven’t reached the cult status of some of the hallowed duos of a generation past, but they have run the Irish ground attack into some pretty rarified air, waking up some echoes that many Irish fans had long forgotten when it came to running the football effectively.

For much of the past 25 years, running the ball has been embedded into the DNA of the Fighting Irish. When Lou Holtz took over the Notre Dame football program in 1986, he immediately pronounced the Irish a ground machine, relying on a steady rotation of ball carriers to power the Irish offense. In Holtz’s first season, the Irish averaged 189.4 yards a game rushing, good for 33rd in the nation. The Irish wouldn’t average less than 215 yards a game or finish worse than 20th in the country again until 1997, the first year of the Bob Davie era. Davie had some football teams that were adept at running the ball — his 1998 and 2000 teams both averaged more than 200 yards a game. But the Irish running games that moved so efficiently under Holtz’s saw a steady decline in efficiency in the tail end of the Davie era, and then a precipitous drop when Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis took over the Irish program, with the Irish failing to average 4.0 yards a carry in seven of the eight seasons between the two coaches.

There are plenty of logical reasons why the Irish running game has taken a step back in the years since Holtz coached in South Bend. Passing quarterbacks like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen do nothing to help a team’s rushing average (especially with sack yardage counting against the running totals). Plus, Holtz’s teams never liked passing that much either, with the Irish ranking in the top 50 in passing offense only once, with the 1992 team tying for 49th best in the country.

The Irish will never return to the days of averaging 250 yards on the ground a game, like they did under Holtz. The sports has changed too much and the Irish have too much talent at wide receiver, tight end, and quarterback. But for the first time in almost two decades, Brian Kelly has put together a rushing attack that embodies the great days of old.

With Cierre Wood averaging 5.8 yards a carry and on pace to run for 1,400 yards, the Irish look to have their most prolific runner since Reggie Brooks ran for 1,343 yards in 1992. (With a breakout game, Wood could also put Vagas Ferguson‘s 1,437 yard 1979 season in in his sights.) After a slow start, Jonas Gray’s 8.4 yards a carry have forced Kelly to give the powerful senior a bigger role in the rushing attack, and the duo — along with one of the best Irish offensive lines in the past two decades — has put the Irish ground game into some hallowed space after six games.

Even at its most explosive, no Irish ground game under Holtz ran for six yards a carry, like the Irish are doing at the midpoint of the regular season. With both Wood and Gray on pace to get 100 carries each, the Irish one-two punch ranks up there with Jerome Bettis and Tony Brooks in 1991 and Bettis and Reggie Brooks in 1992 as the top duos of the last 25 years. (The 1991 rushing attack was so prolific that senior Rodney Culver averaged 5.6 yards a carry on 114 carries.)

Operating from a spread formation, the process might look vastly different than it did 20 years ago, but the results are the same. Ed Warinner‘s run game relies on time-tested power, counter and zone blocking concepts, while doing it exclusively from a one-back set. Those that pine for the day of Joe Moore‘s offensive line pulling and leading the way are seeing the modern version, with center Braxston Cave, and guards Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson just as likely leading the way around the outside.

With Andrew Hendrix added into the mix against Air Force, the Irish averaged over nine yards a carry against the Falcons while adding a quarterback running option to Kelly’s spread system. As the running game hits its stride and Tommy Rees gets the pass attack playing at a more efficient level, the Irish offense is on track to be one of the most balanced units in school history.

After six football games, Wood and Gray are on pace to do something special. While their Q Rating and nicknames need work, HollyWood and Meatball could go down in the record books.

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Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.