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Wood and Gray are running to a historic season

Oct 13, 2011, 1:07 PM EDT

Cierre Wood Pitt

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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  1. harpuairish - Oct 13, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    If Jonas is “Meatball”, then Cierre has to be “Shake”. Aqua Teens shout out!

  2. carlisleirishfan - Oct 13, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    It is nice to finally see a decent ground attack. The ground game has really been lacking since year to of the Charlie Weis era when Darius Walker was taking the majority of the snaps. Even that ground attack wasn’t much to write home about at times. Good times are definately coming for the Irish!

    Go Irish!

  3. msmmh - Oct 13, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    HollyWood and Meatball, you got my vote Keith.

  4. smurphdoggy29 - Oct 13, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    I am glad for both Hollywood and Meatball. They deserve to have this kind of production after having put in the time and effort leading up to this point. Congratulations young men and squeeze everything you can out of it!!

    I would also like to say Congratulations to the Offensive Line, receivers, Coaches, and everyone involved in making the ground attack as productive as it is !! They all have made the effort and sacrifice and deserve the accolades and credit that is coming their way !! Both Hollywood and Meatball know where their bread is buttered and I am confident they praise all involved as often as they can !!

    Keep up the good work all involved !! It is a very entertaining offense to watch and we all look forward to its evolution and progression !! Thanks Keith for keeping us up to date !!

  5. gtizzo - Oct 13, 2011 at 7:06 PM


    Maverick and Goose…nice job on the article. Ground game a welcome sight. That offensive line is better then anybody thought…except irish fans we never had a doubt.

  6. trbowman - Oct 13, 2011 at 8:38 PM

    Don’t jinx them.

    • jommy995 - Oct 13, 2011 at 10:17 PM

      Forgive me (or enlighten me if you can), but I keep seeing 6 and even 5 men in the box as our opponents line up to defend the pass. It’s hard for me to get too impressed by backs or the O line putting up numbers against such sets. Isn’t it Kelly’s proficient passing attack and the indefensible Michael Floyd that should get the credit for most of the ground game successes?

      • trbowman - Oct 13, 2011 at 11:16 PM

        Oh ya they do, defenses have to respect Floyd has a vertical threat but Gray and Wood have been very impressive in their own right.

      • mattnef - Oct 14, 2011 at 10:31 AM

        Just like with everything in football, it isn’t just one person to praise or blame. Yes Floyd and Kelly’s game plan is responsible for the running game, but you still need a veteran and powerful offensive line to open the holes and fast and elusive running backs to carry the ball. Just like Floyd wouldn’t be indefensible without a QB to throw him the ball, an offensive line to block for the QB, and other WRs/TEs that have to be defended (and he wasn’t so indefensible in the Pitt game).

      • paiten34 - Oct 17, 2011 at 2:12 AM

        If that was the case then charlie weis’s 05 06 teams would have had the best running seasons in notre dame history. However the nd offense was pass only with little running game.

        No sacks and no qb turnovers the past two games gives credit to the running game being a huge part of this team. For proof look at the 4 wins to end last season and the 4 wins this season. All 8 games notre dame had huge running totals.

  7. dickasman - Oct 14, 2011 at 4:46 PM

    Cierre as Jenna Jameson and Jonas as Lexington Steele for some Jameson and Steele babyyyy!!!

  8. 1notredame1 - Oct 14, 2011 at 6:42 PM

    No, No, No! Cierre Wood should have an appropriate nickname. Since he is from California and is both tall and lean, he should be known as “Sierra”. “Sierra” is the genus, and “Sierra Sempervirens” is the species, of the Coast Redwood, the world’s tallest tree! By the way, “Sempervirens” means “living forever” which would make “Sierra Sempervirens” a fitting nickname. However, most people probably would find “Sierra Sempervirens” to be too much of a mouthful; plus, it probably has too many syllables to sound “catchy”. So Cierre Wood is “Sierra”, because he comes from California and is tall and lean! Also, “Sierra” is a “catchy” nickname!

    • 1notredame1 - Oct 14, 2011 at 6:48 PM

      Finally, the nickname “Hollywood” (or “HollyWood”) was used by a Dallas Cowboys player during the mid-to-late 1970s. So let’s not recycle nicknames.

  9. a68domer - Oct 14, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    I like the comparison of Warriner to Joe Moore. Bob Davie could have had better running offenses if he hadn’t shot himself in the foot (among other body parts) with that whole Joe Moore situation. Looks like BK has found the right chemistry along the offensive line.

  10. yaketyyacc - Oct 14, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    didn’t my man willie s. settle the name thing long ago. sir wood and sir gray wouldst be known in football as HOLLYWOOD and MEATBALL of the Fighting Irish, that cause fear and foreboding amongst the men of Troy?

    • 1notredame1 - Oct 15, 2011 at 7:28 PM

      In the world of college football, nothing is ever settled: not the championship, not the rankings, not the All-Americans, and not nicknames! Anyway, “HollyWood” is a simplistic nickname “Meatball” is an out-and-out ugly nickname! I prefer your “Sir Wood” and “Sir Gray” nicknames to “HollyWood” and “Meatball”; and I prefer my nickname of “Sierra” (tall, lean, strong, and long-living) for Cierre Wood among them all.

      • Jennifer - Oct 18, 2011 at 1:50 AM

        Spot on, 1ND1…got my vote!

  11. kaf39 - Oct 17, 2011 at 4:37 PM

    Good for them

  12. fitz79 - Oct 17, 2011 at 5:32 PM

    I love it that we not only have a good running game again, but it’s a one, two punch. Look at South Carolina. Lattimore’s awesome but now he’s out for the season so they’re pretty much screwed. It’s encouraging to see the depth that Kelly’s building at almost every position on this team. Go Irish!

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