No. 10 Irish hope running game will be championship caliber

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Championship teams are often built around great defenses and offenses that can run the ball when needed.

With all the success Notre Dame has enjoyed its last three seasons, amassing a 33-6 record under coach Brian Kelly, it has been the inability to run in big games that has curtailed the title hopes of the Fighting Irish.

No. 10 Notre Dame hopes to change that starting Saturday when Duke visits for the season opener inside a Notre Dame Stadium that will be less than a quarter filled because of COVID-19 concerns.

“The basic tenets of having a really good football team, potentially a great football team, are in place,” Kelly said. “Now we’re going to have to prove it.”

Notre Dame is playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season. To challenge for the ACC title and the College Football Playoff berth, the Fighting Irish will need to run the football better than they have the last two seasons. New offensive coordinator and former Irish quarterback Tom Rees is expecting a lot of input from run game coordinator Lance Taylor and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.

Last season, the Irish twice lost on the road after leaving their run game at home: On Sept. 21, they managed just 46 yards on 14 carries in a 23-17 loss to Georgia. A little more than a month later, Notre Dame ran 31 times for a measly 47 yards in a 45-14 victory defeat at Michigan.

A year earlier, the Irish totaled just 88 yards on 35 carries in a 30-3 loss in a CFP loss to Clemson. Similar woes cropped up in 2017 losses to the Gerogia and Miami.

Of the ACC’s top six teams against the rush in 2019, the Irish play just two: Pittsburgh (108.5 yards allowed per game, 12th nationally) and top-ranked Clemson (116.1 ypg, 19th).

Duke gave up 180.6 rushing yards per game a year ago, just 87th out of 130 FBS schools. In a 38-7 loss to Notre Dame, Duke allowed quarterback Ian Book to rush for 139 yards while throwing for four touchdowns in Notre Dame’s 38-7 victory.

“A year ago they dominated us, and his running ability was on display,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “He’s got great skill around him.”

Last season, injuries to running backs Tony Jones Jr., Jafar Armstrong and others cropped up and Notre Dame averaged just 179.2 rushing yards (45th nationally). The Irish converted 62% on third- and fourth-down rushes of two yards or less; the backs just didn’t get to the holes quick enough.

That has all changed. Speedy sophomore Kyren Williams, who saw mop-up duty last year, and freshman Chris Tyree are atop the depth chart ahead of talented senior Armstrong and juniors Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister.

“That’s five backs,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been blessed to have that kind of depth at the position.”

The starting interior linemen who began the 2019 season – left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Aaron Banks, center Jarrett Patterson, right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey – return intact after Kramer and Hainsey recovered from late injuries. The tight ends – seniors Brock Wright and George Takacs, junior Tommy Tremble and true freshman Michael Mayer – are as good with their shoulder pads as they are with their hands.

Kelly is counting on it.

“When it comes to short yardage, we’ll be able to feature any one of those backs based upon what the situations are and what we’re doing,” he said. “But let’s make no mistake about it, short yardage starts upfront. It starts with the ability to control the line of scrimmage.”

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