Things We Learned, pt. 2: Notre Dame’s multiple-look ground game sets offensive tone

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – In emphatically dashing South Florida’s hopes of lightning striking twice twice, Notre Dame did more than realize its recently-unprecedented depth. If sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser is a scout team player for the Irish, then the reliability and potential of their roster go well beyond its core.

But the reliability and potential of its core still set No. 7 Notre Dame’s ceiling. The 52-0 victory was going to be a win no matter how Kiser, freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis and junior safety Houston Griffith played in unexpected starts, but the composure and decisiveness of the shutout turned the sure-win into a statement of its own.

The offensive line and ground game made that statement loudest of all. After a week of worries about the slow start against Duke, the Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) put the Bulls on their heels, literally and figuratively, from the outset. The new blocking scheme, implemented to highlight the quickness of Notre Dame’s top backs, took a moment to mesh in the opener, but once it came together against South Florida, the Irish stampede would not be stopped.

“We wanted to win the line of scrimmage, run the ball, and that’s one thing we did today,” fifth-year quarterback Ian Book said. “That opens up the whole playbook once you do that.”

Notre Dame ran for 281 yards on 45 rushes, a 6.2 yards per carry average. By no means was it a record-setting performance, but it was a doubt-erasing one.

No alternative runs were needed to bump up the numbers, the only jet sweep-esque attempt a three-yard end-around gain for junior receiver Braden Lenzy. No singular dominance sparked concerns about a possible injury or other absence to a lead back. No second-half letdown tempered the Irish enthusiasm.

Instead, Notre Dame spread the wealth to four running backs, led by sophomore C’Bo Flemister’s 127 yards and a touchdown on just 13 carries. Coming off a collarbone injury that had him in a red non-contact jersey a week ago and out of the game against the Blue Devils, Flemister had become an afterthought due to the sudden emergency of sophomore Kyren Williams and the tantalizing promise of freshman Chris Tyree.

As a side note, all seven players in quarantine warrant sympathies for having to miss action in a situation like this and concern for all the unknowns involved, but perhaps most of all junior running back Jahmir Smith. If there was ever a week to enjoy as a running back, it was this one.

Anyway, Flemister’s day to shine underscored the offensive line’s success. No matter the opponent, needing to gain an average of only 3.9 yards per third down is a testament to stellar and consistent play up front.

“When you talk about the offensive line, and they were really good today, I thought that they continued where they left off in the third and fourth quarter last week, picking up movement,” Kelly said. “We are starting to get our aiming points down pretty good on the outside zone and our inside punch play, and then once teams start over-committing to that, then you can see how clean the counters look and the misdirection plays.”

The offensive line had help in the form of as many as four tight ends. Tyree’s one-yard sweep around the right side for a first-quarter touchdown came behind junior tight end-working-as-a-fullback Tommy Tremble with three other tight ends as part of the package. It was downright Stanfordian in design.

“The tight ends were integral as you can see by our formation sets,” Kelly said. “… We are really deep there and those guys are huge contributors to what we are doing at that position and running the football.”

The influx of tight ends and the dynamism of the Irish running backs pick up the intermittent passing game, as well, and not just by gaining yards on the ground when the aerial approach does not click. They also participate in the passing game, coming from formations that appear to be running-based.

Notre Dame’s first three plays were all play-action looks, on which Book went 3-of-3 for 37 yards, with 30 of those yards coming on two completions to tight ends. The Irish did not need Book to shine against the Bulls, as evidenced by his modest stat line of 12-of-19 for 144 yards, but the efficacy of their multiple-looks should carry forward all the same.

“All those guys are really good at different things,” Book said. “… It just allows us to open up our playbook more. We can run different formations with them, there’s a lot of different things we can do with it.

“To me, it’s great. Get those guys who can all run block and can also go down the field and make a play, make a catch. That’s huge for me, a confidence-builder for myself.”

While Notre Dame’s receivers made only four catches for 41 yards — numbers hampered by junior Lawrence Keys’ absence, although junior Joe Wilkins’ turn from newfound talent to silent cannot be explained as easily — the tight ends combined for five catches for 71 yards and the running backs added four receptions for 37 yards. As long as the tight ends and running backs are genuinely capable in both the run game and the passing game, and by all impressions they are, leaning on the multiple-looks afforded by them will put defenses in a bind, particularly given the Irish depth at each position.

That depth is arguably only matched along the defensive line. A week ago, 11 defensive linemen played, and that was notable. In this 52-0 rout, 13 defensive linemen saw action, culminating with freshman end Jordan Botelho recovering a blocked punt for a touchdown and freshman end Alexander Ehrensberger recording not just a sack, but two tackles for loss.

Ehrensberger, freshman defensive tackle Rylie Mills and freshman end Howard Cross may not be ready for critical moments, but their ability to fill ably Saturday only helps them along and preserves the legs of the reserves who are ready for critical moments. Notre Dame may have been unsure if they were ready for these snaps, given the lack of spring practice and the truncated and limited nature to preseason practices.

“To get them in the game like this where they certainly got reps in camp, but you’re still also trying to make up reps for your first team,” Kelly said. “We were on a pitch count in the sense that we didn’t want to have too much one-on-one contact during preseason camp, so we didn’t get quite as many live reps as we have had in the past. That means the trickle-down is the 2s didn’t get as many, either.

“This was a great game to get those reps in for the 2s and sharpen their toolbox, so to speak.”

What running through the Bulls lacked in gumption-checking, it made up for in tool-sharpening, mainly those tools needed in the trenches, where so much of college football is won and lost.