Notre Dame’s ‘demeanor in running the football’

29 Comments

The above clip montage is rather mundane. Notre Dame sophomore running back Tony Jones never comes close to breaking off a real highlight, aside from a ho-hum seven-yard touchdown run. Why in the world would such a video be cobbled together, let alone featured atop an article?

Because it is mundane. That’s the point. Not every run can be a 66-yard dash up the sideline.

In his collegiate debut, Jones did not wow. He did not dazzle. He took six carries for 19 yards, all included above. He also reduced junior Josh Adams’ workload by six carries, saved Adams from more than half a dozen hits and kept Adams off the turf five times.

Those contributions should not be minimized. Not only do they keep the starter a bit fresher, they also wear down the defense. Bit by bit, that can lead to a 60-yard jaunt.

“Having a good run game, you have to have big plays,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following the 49-16 victory over Temple on Saturday. “When you drop your safeties down and decide that you’re going to play eight [or] nine guys on the line of scrimmage, if you break through, those are the things that come with it.”

Before continuing, let’s be clear: This is not to say Jones’ only contributions this year will be as the wave beating down on the rock. His moments to break through will undoubtedly come. When Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush says he thinks he has “three of the best backs in the country” behind him, he is not paying lip service to Jones or junior Dexter Williams. Wimbush believes that statement, with reason.

This is to say separating one aspect of the running game from the rest of it misses the sum of the parts. When Kelly gave the game ball to Adams, the captain did not hesitate to say it belongs to the entire offensive unit.

“Every guy on that offensive unit has developed a mindset of taking it upon themselves to be the player that we can count on,” Adams said afterward. “Offensive line, run behind me. Wide receivers, throw me the ball. Quarterbacks, give me the play so I can run it. Running back, give me the ball so I can run hard.”

Every player may want to be counted on, but with eight or nine defenders approaching the line of scrimmage, Kelly has typically tried to count on the passing game. His logic made sense: If the defense is going to leave only one safety to help cover the receivers, target the one-on-one matchup. It should favor the offense.

Saturday’s approach makes sense, too. If the defense is going to stack the line of scrimmage, turn to a veteran offensive line to clear just a few yards of a path. At that point, there shouldn’t be any defenders remaining downfield to make a stop. This may seem boom or bust, and it sometimes will be, but if the booms come often enough, the busts are worthwhile.

If not counting the two sacks of Wimbush as rush attempts, but factoring in all his other runs, Notre Dame had 18 “booms” against 24 “busts.” In this instance, any run of 10 or more yards or a touchdown counted as a boom. Anything less equaled a bust, making for a rather harsh grading system, one in which a seven-yard carry lands on the wrong side of the ledger.

The Irish will gladly take an 18:24 ratio, or anything even remotely close to it. As long as the Notre Dame run game dictates the defense and not the other way around, expect to see more six-yard carries from Jones followed by seven- and eight-yard rushes from Williams. A play later, Williams may break off a 40-yarder to the seven-yard line, only for Jones to gain those final seven yards a play later.

Expect to see Adams get stopped at the line of scrimmage on a first-and-10. A play later he just might rush for 60 yards, setting up a subsequent 12-yard touchdown pass.

“[Offensive coordinator] Chip Long was talking about a physicality and a demeanor in running the football,” Kelly said Tuesday. “It wasn’t about how many yards we were going to amass in total offense. It was about how we were going to exert our will in terms of running the football.”