Pop Quiz: What's the longest rushing touchdown by a tailback in the Weis era? (Answer below.)
That piece of trivia nagged me after a few observant readers commented on the conspicuous absence of the running game from last week's 2008 top ten list. Likewise, a quick scan of the new Top Plays of the Weis Era poll on UND.com reveals only one tailback run out of thirty plays, and that play is likely included more for its significance (Irish sealing a BCS berth in 2005) than anything else. Even in 2007, the worst rushing offense in Notre Dame history ironically produced two memorable runs by James Aldridge and Robert Hughes that would have likely made this list. Also consider: Hughes's 45-yard rush would have tied Kevin Faulk for longest run by a Patriot back during Weis's tenure there, and Aldridge's 43-yard scamper would have placed him third. Breakaway touchdown runs have been scarce on recent Weis-coached teams.
But back to the Irish. After a little research, the longest rush by a back last year was a rather embarrassing 21 yards, achieved three separate times by Armando Allen against Purdue. Sadly, no one else in the Irish backfield broke the 20 yard plateau for the rest of the season. Fast-forward a couple months, and Frank Verducci is coaching the offensive line with Tony Alford handling the backs. Fast-forward a couple more months, and there are obligatory "the running game is improving" comments from spring football. Keep fast-forwarding, and there are hints from local beat writers that one offensive line starter is moving to center to replace a weak link in last year's line and make room for a rapidly improving youngster. It all sounds so perfect, right?
Back the truck up. Let's take one last look at 2008, one running play concept at a time, in ascending order of usage.
The toss play owns the dubious distinction of losing the most yards on a single carry, as the Irish lost seven yards on two separate occasions against both Hawaii and Boston College. Worse yet, the starting offense ran it to the strongside left six times all year, and only once did it result in positive yardage. For the season, the strongside left toss averaged -0.86 yards per carry, and that's with a ten-yard gain by Jonas Gray in garbage time against Washington. Below are two familiar examples from games against Southern Cal and Hawaii.
Feel free to analyze those plays in the comments section, but here are some quick thoughts. One, Kyle Rudolph's lack of strength is obvious. I can't speak to blocking fundamentals, but it's doubtful that spring football caused a regression in either. He had nowhere to go but up. Second, there's usually one player who causes bad things to happen. In the first play, it's Stewart. He can't block the weakside tackle, who makes the play in the hole. Maybe the play had a chance otherwise. In the second, it's Rudolph. When he gets pushed back, it forces Schwapp wider, which forces Hughes wider, which allows the linebackers to run away from the linemen trying to block them. It looks like Eric Olsen makes a poor attempt at a block, but the reality is, if Rudolph isn't pushed back, forcing the entire play wider, that linebacker would be within his grasp.
There is little doubt that an improved offensive line and a stronger Rudolph should result in improved production and greater usage. Another item to watch closely is whether Aldridge's speed is utilized as a lead blocker. When the play was successful in 2005 and early 2006, some of the most successful toss plays were with the more athletic Rashon Powers-Neal at fullback or John Carlson as a move TE or h-back.
That clip from the 2005 Washington game was one of five toss plays that picked up 13 yards or more. Powers-Neal was a lead blocker on four of them. When he played, the toss play averaged 4.9 yards per carry with a median carry of 6 yards. By contrast, although the toss play averaged 4.8 yards per carry with Schwapp, the median carry was only 3 yards. If Aldridge welcomes the blocking assignments of playing fullback, his speed should be an asset. If not, it's up to Steve Paskorz or one of the tight ends.
Lastly, the offensive line must play more consistently. The play of the backs and tight ends is important, but everything begins up front. Watching Ryan Harris in those clips reminds one that Notre Dame hasn't had that kind of dominating offensive line play since he left. Ditto Mark Levoir. It was nice to see Trevor Robinson land on top of his man in the first set of clips, just as it was great to see Mike Turkovich stone his defender in both. The Irish offense is going to need more of that kind of line play in 2009.
Trivia answer here. As far as 2008, the longest score by a back was a boring, straight-ahead 16-yard rush by Allen against Purdue. No broken tackles, no jukes, not even a stiff-arm. Allen was in the endzone before a lineman could even pancake his opponent.