SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — While Sam Hartman’s strong passing game is all the rage at No. 9 Notre Dame, it's still the bulldozing ground game that keeps the Fighting Irish offense chugging along.
Second-year coach Marcus Freeman doesn't want it any other way.
Freeman never intended to abandon the program’s old-school identity, even after plucking Hartman out of the transfer portal or promoting tight ends coach Gerad Parker to offensive coordinator.
“This is not going to be a pass-first offense,” Freeman said in February when announcing Parker's new job. “But it really creates opportunities to have success in the passing game because of your ability to run the ball. All those things go together for complimentary football.”
The numbers prove it.
Through three games, Notre Dame is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, No. 21 in the 133-team FBS. Add that component to Hartman's efficiency, and it's no surprise the Irish are 3-0.
Bigger tests are coming up.
On Saturday, Notre Dame hosts Central Michigan (1-1), which has a run defense ranked No. 32 (86.0 yards per game) even after playing Michigan State. Then No. 6 Ohio State, a team allowing just 2.6 yards per carry, comes to Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame's rushing attack has been powered by a bevy of backs.
Bulldozing Audric Estimè is the leader. Listed at 5-foot-11 1/2 and 227 pounds, he has a unique combination of nimble feet, nifty bursts and breakaway speed.
Estimè already has four TD runs. He leads the nation in yards rushing and although he's played one more game than most players, his average of 115 yards per game still ranks No. 14.
“Audric is Audric,” Freeman said. “He’s going to be the guy we give the ball to and say, ‘Run this thing.’”
Committing to ground game, of course, means in-game adjustments are necessary — especially when things don't go well early. Notre Dame had two three-and-outs on its first two series last weekend at North Carolina State.
Instead of changing course, though, Parker held fast.
After a 1-hour, 45-minute weather delay, he moved moved All-American left tackle Joe Alt to the outside of right tackle Blake Fisher, going with an unbalanced offensive line.
The result: It confused the Wolfpack and Estimé sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown.
“That’s just a scary look,” Estimé said. “I honestly believe we have the best offensive line in the country, and that’s led by the best tackle duo. To have them on the same side gave me a little rush."
Estimé may possess the profile of a workhorse back, but so far, he's only had a little more than 14 carries per game.
Instead, the Irish have utilized a versatile three-man rotation.
In addition to Estimé, there's quick and shifty Jadarian Price, who also has been an effective option on screen passes, and Jeremiyah Love, an explosive, one-cut runner. Gi’Bran Payne is another option because he can line up in the slot and excels in multiple facets.
Each played key roles Saturday, and the group could become a five-man band when former Penn State runner Devyn Ford, a quick-twitch runner, clears concussion protocol.
Together, they can create all sorts of havoc for opponents.
“It gets them going,” Parker said. "They know they’re adding value.”
Add Parker’s creative schemes and it could be a winning combination — even when the schedule gets tougher.
They're going to need it, too, after averaging 3.5 yards per carry or worse in last year's losses to Ohio State, Southern California and Marshall.
“We have to continue to utilize each strength of each guy in that room,” Freeman said. “But we’re not going to get away from who we are.”
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