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Is a Running Game Necessary? The Impact of Notre Dame’s Ground Woes

By · February 10th, 2009 · 2 Comments · 5,672 views
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Is a Running Game Necessary? The Impact of Notre Dame’s Ground Woes

After two of the most prolific offensive seasons in Fighting Irish history, the Charlie Weis-led Notre Dame offense produced two inconsistent and wholly underwhelming campaigns in 2007 and 2008.

The efficient, passing-centric offense led by quarterback Brady Quinn has been replaced by a one-dimensional vertical passing attack that struggles against relatively average defensive units.

As noted and discussed here, most of the blame for this poor offensive output has been predictable play-calling and the absence of a minimally effective running game. While play-calling and Weis’ offensive approach are partially to blame for the recent offensive woes, it is the lack of rushing output that is the primary focus of this discourse.

National Championship Caliber Offenses

Many fans have opined as to why the Irish can’t run the ball. But before culpability is established, the following question must be answered: does Notre Dame need a competent running game to be successful? This discussion specifically focuses on the answer to this question, leaving the reasons behind the poor production as the topic of later articles.

For Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and the overwhelming majority of Irish fans (including this one), success is defined as competing at an elite level against the best teams in the country, i.e. challenging for national championships.

The benefits of a good running game have been discussed ad neaseum. While these are compelling arguments, the true measure of rushing success for a team that aspires to routinely compete for national championships is to look at the champions themselves.

To that end, the table below shows the last 10 BCS champions along with their offensive output for the season: rushing yards per game and rank as well as passing yards per game and rank. Notre Dame’s values are shown in parentheses. This is assumed to be a representative set of data for the modern era of college football.

YearBCS winnerRushing yards rankRushing yards/
game
Passing yards rankPassing yards/
game
1999FSU83 (26)122.8 (181.5)12 (34)302.9 (238.2)
2000OU68 (15)134.6 (213.6)13 (109)294.7 (132.2)
2001Miami21 (30)204.6 (188.2)35 (114)250.2 (101.5)
2002OSU31 (68)191.3 (139.4)92 (91)173.2 (174.2)
2003LSU27 (56)185.7 (157.3)43 (92)232.6 (179.1)
2004USC33 (95)177.4 (127.4)13 (54)271.7 (218.1)
2005Texas2 (55)274.9 (147.1)40 (4)237.2 (330.3)
2006Florida38 (72)160 (125.7)28 (13)236.1 (264.1)
2007LSU11 (115)214.1 (75.3)58 (110)225.3 (167)
2008Florida10 (100)231.1 (109.7)61 (34)213.9 (245.4)

Obviously the offensive statistics shown above do not provide a blueprint for winning the national championship. Including the defensive numbers would supplement these values and likely paint a better picture, but this is a discussion focused on the impact of a solid ground game and the minimum running game threshold needed to compete at the national championship level.

The Overall BCS Champion Offensive Picture

So while the data above doesn’t tell the whole story, it is readily evident that offensive balance is needed to compete for national championships. No national championship team during the previous 10 years has ranked worse than 40th in rushing offense and 45th in passing offense in the same season.

Of the 10 teams that won the BCS national championship from 1999 to 2008, only two of them-Florida State in 1999 and Oklahoma in 2000-fielded offenses that lacked significant balance (Ohio State in 2002 is another candidate but had a potent rushing attack and were excluded for the purposes of this discussion). Moreover, these are the only two teams that rushed for fewer than 160 yards per game.

Additionally, over the same 10-year span, only three teams ranked lower than 45th in per-game passing offense. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that only two teams-Ohio State in 2002 and Florida this year-averaged fewer than 220 yards passing per game.

Finally, the average rushing offense for the past 10 BCS national champions ranked 32nd (nearly 190 yards per game) while the passing offenses averaged a rank of nearly 40 (228 yards per game). This strongly supports an argument for the necessity of an effective running game.

So while Florida State in 1999 and Oklahoma in 2000 were able to win the national championship with primarily passing-based offenses, having an unproductive ground game doesn’t result in a high probability of success. Without strong defenses, it’s unlikely these two teams would have achieved at such a high level.

What Do The Irish Look Like?

Looking at the numbers, it isn’t surprising Notre Dame hasn’t had consistent offensive success in recent years.

Only the 1999 Irish squad was able to field a balanced offensive attack, averaging 181.5 yards per game on the ground and 238.2 yards per game passing. In fact, this was the only year the Irish ranked better than 40th in rushing offense and 45th in passing offense in the same season. Over the same period five national champion teams accomplished this feat.

Seven times the Irish ranked lower than 40 in rushing offense, the same seven seasons that produced fewer than 160 yards per game on the ground. Similarly, six seasons have seen the Irish rank outside the top 45 in passing offense, the same six years that produced fewer than 220 yards of passing offense per game.

On average, from 1999 to 2008 the Irish offense has fielded the 63rd ranked running game (146.5 yards per game) and nearly the 66th best passing attack (205 yards per game). These numbers are a far cry from 10-year averages of the BCS national champions presented in the table above.

What About Weis?

But this is a discussion about the Irish offensive production over the past four years under Weis’ tutelage, particularly with respect to the anemic Irish running game.

Notre Dame has produced a passing offense ranked better than 45 with an output of more than 220 yards per game three times under Weis. But the Irish have not ranked above 40 in rushing offense or eclipsed 160 yards per game on the ground during the same duration.

During the past four years Notre Dame has averaged 86th in rushing offense at 114.5 yards per game. This is hardly congruent with the averages of the last 10 BCS national champions mentioned above and vastly different from the averages of the BCS national champion teams over the same period (15th ranked rushing offense at 220 yards per game).

So, while the Irish do not need to be a run-first offense to compete for the national championship, it is obvious the current level of production will not allow them to produce an elite football team. Rectifying this problem must quickly become a focus of Weis and his staff. Hopefully the off-season coaching hires at the offensive line and running backs positions were made to this end.

Furthermore

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