A common offensive theme of BCS-qualifying teams is a potent rushing attack, a facet of the game Notre Dame must have at the top of its priority list during the remaining six games of its schedule.
While the task at hand is no different than the majority of programs across the country, the importance, significance and necessity of effectively running the ball for the Irish is seemingly unmatched. Why is that, you ask?
It begins at the quarterback position, where the success of Tommy Rees hinges upon the production of running backs George Atkinson III, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and Tarean Folston.
The quartet experienced a tumultuous start to the season, as it failed to eclipse the 100-yard mark in three of the Irish's first four contests. Those three contests—a loss at Michigan and two blood-pressure-increasing wins against Purdue and Michigan State—displayed the grotesque circumstances of placing the burden on Rees by essentially forcing him to win games as a passer.
But that's not who Rees is as a quarterback, unfortunately.
While the Lake Forest, Ill., native has been integral to the Irish in properly reading defenses and getting the offense in the right looks, the most flattering label Rees will ever receive is that of "game manager."
That condition was evident during Notre Dame's 35-21 loss to Oklahoma at Notre Dame Stadium two weeks ago.
Against a Sooner defense ranked 23rd nationally against the run, the Irish rushing attack finally emerged, piling up 220 yards while averaging five yards per carry.
On a good day, that rushing output would typically open up the passing game—the pistol formation in Notre Dame's case—on the way to a bevy of points. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Rees had one of the worst performances of his career, completing just nine of 24 passing attempts for 104 yards, two touchdowns and three costly interceptions.
While Rees won't ever light up the stat sheet, atrocious performances, such as that against the Sooners, are an anomaly.
The first two of those three interceptions, while not directly attributable to Rees—left tackle Zack Martin missed a blitz protection assignment on the first, and receiver DaVaris Daniels miscalculated his route on the second—essentially gift-wrapped the Sooners' first two touchdowns.
Thus, it's fair to assume the Irish would have had a legitimate chance at knocking off then-No. 14 Oklahoma for the second consecutive season without those painful mistakes.
The argument can be made that the Notre Dame offense atoned for its inconsistent, lackluster performance against Oklahoma with a stellar outing against then-No. 22 Arizona State in Dallas. The unit had its most balanced performance of the season, posting 424 yards (279 passing, 145 rushing) against the Sun Devils.
Contextually, the impressive performance was to be expected, as the Sun Devils entered the contest ranked 92nd nationally against the run.
But another opportunity for the Irish offense to prove itself awaits in two weeks during the team's lone home night game of the season against USC.
The Trojans, while grabbing headlines for off-the-field issues this season, have been quietly dominant defensively, aside from a 62-41 drubbing at the hands of Arizona State. Having allowed just 44 points in the four games prior to that shellacking, I'm willing to deem the disappointing defensive performance as an outlier. (Remember, USC athletic director Pat Haden made the decision to fire former head coach Lane Kiffin during the third quarter.)
Regardless of the 21-point loss to Arizona State, the Trojans remain ranked 14th nationally in total defense and 13th nationally against the run, allowing an average of just 99.6 yards per game on the ground.
Should Notre Dame piece together a balanced offensive performance against USC, the Irish will have a template to look back on for the remainder of the season.
The Trojans, BYU and Stanford—the three most challenging opponents remaining on Notre Dame's schedule—are each tremendous defensive teams, meaning the Irish offense must establish and maintain both consistency and balance moving forward for the team's BCS hopes to remain alive.
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