SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame’s multiback rushing attack is about to run into one of its stiffest challenges.
The No. 22 Irish (2-1) play Michigan State (3-0) on Saturday, and the Spartans bring the nation’s top overall defense and No. 4 rush defense to Notre Dame Stadium.
Any time it’s a very good defense and a defense that prides itself on stopping the run, it gives us a little something to know that we are going to have to bring our A’ game to carve it out, left tackle Zack Martin said. Obviously, we weren’t able to do that on times on Saturday (against Purdue when Notre Dame was held to 91 rushing yards). We take that pretty personal, so we are going to out there and go after them.
Notre Dame will attack Michigan State, which gives up 177 yards and 50.3 rushing yards per game, with a running back-by-committee scheme that is en vogue in college.
The Irish, No. 92 in rushing offense with 125 yards per game, have primarily used junior running backs George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel while sprinkling in freshmen Greg Bryan and Tarean Folston.
Using multiple running backs is nothing new in college. Last year, Alabama leaned on T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacey, and those two backs combined for 42 carries, 248 yards and two touchdowns in the Crimson Tide’s 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS championship game.
Five of the top 10 rushing offenses – No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 6 Arizona, No. 8 Baylor, No. 9 Arkansas State and No. 10 Houston – use a true multiple-back system.
While No. 1 Navy, No. 2 BYU, No. 3 Georgia Tech, No. 4 Oregon and No. 7 Army have the quarterback in the rushing mix; those teams’ No. 2 running back averages more than 50 yards per game.
I think across the country, that singular back, that one guy, has not been able to fit all the things that you want to do offensively, coach Brian Kelly said.
I think the position has now required a guy that is multidimensional, and it’s better to find that maybe in two or three different backs.
The 5-foot-9, 190-pound Carlisle has been Notre Dame’s best overall back, running for 148 yards, catching seven passes for 30 yards and being able to pick up blocking assignments.
The 6-1, 220-pound Atkinson is the Irish’s most explosive back, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and the 5-10, 207-pound McDaniel proved he can close games as he gained 42 of his 125 yards on 10 carries in the final eight minutes in last weekend’s 31-24 win at Purdue.
The 5-10, 204-pound Bryant has been limited to three carries for 14 yards, and the 5-9, 207-pound Folston has had five carries for 14 yards.
We have five capable guys back there, and I’m not a guy that thinks any one of the other guys should get more or less touches, McDaniel said. I just know what I can do and what I’m capable of. I just want to execute when I’m given my opportunities.
McDaniel said the running backs are constantly talking during games about how defenses are playing the Irish, and each back is ready when his chance comes.
Your anxiety is up so much, and your adrenalin is up so much that you are kind of loose any way, McDaniel said.
You are all jacked up and ready to go. You can release some of that energy once you get on the field.
Note: Defensive tackle Sheldon Day (ankle) will be a game-time decision against Michigan State, Kelly told reporters Thursday.