NOTRE DAME, Ind. — To get a sense of the kind of offensive tone the Notre Dame football team hoped to set in Saturday’s 22-17 victory over Vanderbilt, simply look at play-by-play breakdown from the opening Irish drive.
In their first 10 plays, the Irish ran six rushing plays for 51 yards and — though the possession ended in a field goal — the drive was indicative of the kind of game plan that had been the Irish calling card a season ago, but one that had yet to emerge in 2018.
After opening the season averaging 124.5 rushing yards per game (105th in the nation) and 2.8 yards per carry, Notre Dame racked up 245 yards on the ground (5.1 yards per carry) against the Commodores. The Irish had 164 rushing yards in the first half, which would have been a season high on its own.
It was the kind of ground performance the Irish had been looking for through the season’s first three games, hoping a lethal attack on the run would further open all areas of the offense.
“I think it opens up a lot more,” said quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who ran for a season high 84 yards and a touchdown to go along with 122 yards through the air. “I think the run game opens up play action, opens up regular passes. They’ll stack the box, and I think things on the perimeter become more viable for us to attack, and we’ll keep improving and getting better at the run game.”
It was junior running back Tony Jones Jr., who led the robust effort, running for a career high 118 yards on 17 carries. His previous career best of 61 yards came last week against Ball State, and the progression from one week to the next was a signal to head coach Brian Kelly of the maturation of his running back corps.
“We saw some things today where we were running to daylight much better, we saw our cuts, we were fitting much better,” Kelly said. “That’s why I say, we’re three games into this, but we had two really good opponents that have tested us, and I think you’re going to start to see that there’s much more of a confidence level starting to emerge with that group that they can be effective all year.”
Kelly anticipated the growing pains that have marked the Irish run game thus far. Last season, his team averaged 269.3 yards per game, good for seventh nationally, at a clip of 6.25 yards per carry. Considering the matriculation of top 10 NFL Draft picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey from the offensive line, plus 2017 leading rusher Josh Adams (1,483 yards), the Irish were bound to experience some bumps after losing 55 percent of their rushing output from a year ago.
Saturday’s effort indicated another step forward for both the offensive line and those carrying the ball for the Irish.
Yoon Keeps Climbing
Nashville product Justin Yoon met his hometown Commodores and continued his steady ascension up the Irish scoring charts, moving into first all-time among kickers and into sole possession of second among all-time scorers. His 10 points (three field goals, one extra point) Saturday brought his career total to 297, passing Craig Hentrich (294 points, 1989-92) and Kyle Brindza (288 points, 2011-14) for the all-time lead among kickers. He needs just 23 points to catch Allen Pinkett (1982-85), who holds the record among all scorers with 320.