Wood and Gray are running to a historic season

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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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