Notre Dame’s running backs give all the credit for their success to their offensive line, while the Irish offensive line insists the backs make blocking easy. Their shared deference underscores the inherently-symbiotic relationship of a successful ground game, and No. 4 Notre Dame’s ground game has inarguably risen to quite successful this season.
Sophomore Kyren Williams and freshman Chris Tyree lead the charge, aided by junior C’Bo Flemister, behind a strong offensive line.
“The guys up front, they were being over-physical with the D-linemen, and they were able to create runs,” Williams said after the Duke game. “We knew 2- to 3-yard gains would burst into big gains. So we knew if we kept doing that, then those big gains would come. Obviously, that’s what happened.”
Under first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) is averaging 231 yards rushing per game, up from an average of 179.2 yards last year. The Irish have rushed on 60.8 percent of their offensive snaps through six games, jumping from 50.6 percent in games with Ian Book as the starting quarterback and Chip Long as the offensive coordinator in the last two seasons.
Notre Dame is ranked No. 7 in the nation in third-down conversion percentage, converting on 54.1 percent of third downs.
Third-and-short situations have been a particular focus of this year’s offense and continue to be heading into Saturday’s matchup against No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0). Junior center Jarrett Patterson noted the offensive line knew third-and-short needed to be an area of improvement before the season.
“As soon as coach Rees got the job of offensive coordinator, our first meeting early in spring, that was something he really harped on is being 100 percent on third-and-short,” Patterson said. “Quite frankly, we weren’t up to that standard last year at all. We weren’t even close.”
This year, Patterson is much happier with the offensive line’s performance in third-and-short situations.
“That’s something we take a lot of pride in, especially knowing that in a game, third-and-3 and third-and-4, Louisville that third-and-5 to seal the game, that the coaches have that trust in us,” he said. “It really means a lot to us, so we take a lot of pride in that as a group.”
The 24-yard run Patterson referenced on third-and-5 did seal the Louisville game, gaining the first down needed to drain the clock in a 12-7 victory. Of all his 105 runs this season, that specific set of blocks stood out for Williams. To be more exact, an added yelp to one of those blocks stood out.
“When I was cutting back, to cut back to get the first down, I actually heard Liam [Eichenberg] scream, ‘Cut back,’” Williams said.
And given this was the moment Kyren Williams cutback to seal #NotreDame's win against Louisville, I can understand why Liam Eichenberg was yelling for the cut left. https://t.co/LahklfdmC3 pic.twitter.com/97UbM4yGe5
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 3, 2020
Williams ran for 127 yards against the Cardinals, which followed a 185-yard performance against Florida State. In the latter matchup, Williams averaged 9.7 yards a carry.
Before the season, Irish head coach Brian Kelly spoke highly of Williams, yet Monday, Kelly still said the run game has been the biggest offensive surprise this season, an understandable dichotomy given his preseason praise did not have results backing it.
“Well, nobody knew about any of the running backs, so I think we can start there,” he said. “Outstanding production from three running backs.”
Nobody knew what to expect from the running backs, but everybody knew plenty about the experienced offensive line. Though a second-year starter, Patterson is the youngest on the offensive line, surrounded by two seniors (left guard Aaron Banks and right tackle Robert Hainsey) and two graduate students (left tackle Liam Eichenberg and right guard Tommy Kraemer).
With 139 career starts between them, the line’s continuity has laid the foundation for its success.
“Just trusting the guy next to us, on a certain play if they’re bringing the pressure, knowing that a certain guy behind me or next to me is going to be there for me, to look out for me,” Patterson said. “That’s just really what it’s been down to, we understand our communication and we do a great job of just seeing everything through one set of eyes.”
That one set of eyes creates a “dream” for a running back as far as Williams is concerned.
“They’re moving the line of scrimmage every single run,” he said. “When you believe that, you can stay patient, you can tiptoe behind the line and still be able to get to the hole you need to go to. That’s how you know you have a good offensive line. Whenever we have that, us running backs, we cherish that.”
Those other running backs also provide a variety for Williams to cherish. Each averages at least 5.6 yards per attempt and each has scored multiple times, but each brings a different approach as a ball carrier.
“We all work off each other,” Williams said. “We all bring a different skill to the table. We all are unique in a way.
“It’s like the hammer and nail. C’Bo is going to come down, downhill, he’s going to hit you, he’s going to get those yards we need. He’s going to get those boulder yards.
“With Chris, you have that speed, and he will come down and hit you, too. With me, I’ll be able to make you miss. I’ll run you over and all that. There is no dropoff with running backs. We can throw anybody in and we can just keep moving as an offense and keep going.”
That rotation has already combined for 1,099 yards and 12 touchdowns (and given Kelly reason to move senior Jafar Armstrong back to personnel-starved receiver), all behind a line so savvy it bellows cutback advice on decisive carries. The combination has quickly proven correct Williams’ assessment after the opener:
“We’re all different types of backs, which makes us like one of the best back rooms in the nation. We have a lot of potential and once the world sees what we can do, it’s going to be crazy.”
That crazy may be vital against a defense that has given up more than 28 points just twice in the last three seasons, but is suddenly and increasingly short-handed, now without its top-two linebackers and starting defensive tackle.
So to recap what Clemson's D is staring down this week against ND:
No LB James Skalski (groin). No LB Mike Jones Jr. (was day to day last week). No Tyler Davis (injured Oct. 21 practice). No Xavier Thomas in the first half (targeting call from last week).
— Grace Raynor (@gmraynor) November 4, 2020
That week-one intent of short gains begetting big gains, that season-long focus on third-and-shorts, that trust in the lineman an arm away could be the keys to a Notre Dame upset (7:30 ET; NBC).
A junior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well.