Notre Dame football: This time, USC's ready for run
Yes, last season’s 20-16 conquest of USC in Los Angeles was special, but not for the obvious reasons - the proximity of his childhood home in Oxnard, Calif., to the USC campus; a chance to revisit In-N-Out Burger.
It’s because the USC game last November was when Wood and the Irish running game turned the corner, and turned the head of Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“The running game really stepped up in that game,” Wood said earlier this week, “and it started a lot of things.”
Wood, who had 89 yards on 15 carries in that game, tag-teammate Jonas Gray and ND’s suddenly vaunted offensive line were at center stage Saturday night, looking to pull off an even more impressive reprise at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish came into the game ranked 30th nationally among the 120 FBS teams in rushing offense - up from 92nd last season - and seventh in average per rush (5.97). That’s more than a half yard ahead of the modern school-record pace.
Early on, though, it was USC out-Irishing the Irish. The Trojans took a 7-0 lead with a 66-yard, 13-play drive in which 11 of the plays were runs - including the first six. All four first downs in the drive came via the rush,
USC mixed it up a little more in the second drive in surging ahead 14-0, but the runs in the opening drive gave more bite to USC quarterback Matt Barkley’s play-action fakes.
With the Irish playing from behind most of the first half, ND collected just 17 rushing yards on six carries.
Kelly, though, is committed to being balanced offensively moving forward, which largely contradicts his recent history with his spread offense.
At Cincinnati (2007-09), Kelly’s teams never ranked higher than 69th in rushing. At Central Michigan (2004-06), his best showing rushing-wise was his first season with the Chippewas (40th).
“I’ve always felt that in running the spread, if you don’t have the ability to run the football first, then you’ve got to take the tight end off the field,’’ Kelly said. “You’ve got to play with four wide receivers, and that is not really the style we want to play.
“So striving for that balance - I think it’s the development of the offensive line, the players that were already here and developed into a very good unit. You can’t be just throwing the ball around if you want to be a championship football team. You’ve got to have that balance, and we’ve been able to develop that balance.”
Wood came into the USC game 20th in rushing nationally. Surprisingly, he was one of only three Irish players in Saturday night’s starting lineup over whom ND got into a protracted recruiting tug of war with the Trojans - the others being linebackers Manti Te’o and Darius Fleming.
“I knew about USC and a lot of my friends went there,” Wood said. “And coming here was going to be an adjustment. I hated snow. But I wanted to get on the field and make a difference fast. And although I still hate snow, I still love my decision.”
Notre Dame had dominated the first quarter all season - until Saturday night.
The Irish outgained each of its first six opponents, and cumulatively 847-355, an average of 140-59. USC turned the tables, though, outscoring the Irish 14-0, outgaining them 128-14 and holding an 8-0 command in first downs.
ND’s initial first down of the game came seven seconds into the second quarter on a nine-yard pass from Tommy Rees to Robby Toma.