Ground game carrying Irish offense

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame three years ago with a spread attack predicated upon strong quarterback play. Naturally, it's his rushing game that has the Irish knocking on the door of the national title picture going into Saturday's game at Oklahoma.

"I think as we went through the spring it became pretty apparent to me that the success of our offense was going to be predicated on what we could do up front and running the football," Kelly said. "I think it started to emerge in all of our coaches' minds that it was going to be a run‑first kind of offense and still spread the field, still be able to attack."

Notre Dame more than held its own on the ground the past two weeks in victories over Stanford and BYU, the nation's fourth- and eighth-best rushing defenses, respectively. The Irish carried the ball 44 and 43 times for 150 and 270 yards in those games, and now they are hoping that formula serves them well in their toughest test to date.

"Obviously when you run the ball it's a lot easier on the offense," Theo Riddick said. "You can do a lot of play-action, there's a lot of things you can do when you run the ball well. So obviously that's the key in terms of our success right now and we just want to continue it."

A 55-yard run late in the third quarter highlighted Riddick's career-best 143-yard performance Saturday. Kelly said afterward that, despite a 14-7 deficit and an offense struggling to move the ball through the air, his players knew the blueprint would eventually carry them to the win.

The Irish attempted only three passes in the second half against BYU. Against Miami two weeks earlier, Notre Dame turned a 13-3 halftime lead into a 31-point advantage 15 minutes later on the backs of a ground game that ran the ball on 19 of the team's 21 third-quarter plays, amassing 197 yards during that period alone.

Recruited as a running back, moved to slot receiver for the better part of two years and now in a hybrid role for his senior campaign, Riddick leads the Irish in carries (95) and rushing yards (451) this season, while his 20 catches rank second on the team.

"I think it's rare because he was flipped from being a running back to a wide receiver and had to be brought back to where his natural position is," Kelly said of the successful transition. "I don't think it's unusual, because his body type was really more suited for the position. We were in a different place in our program where we needed somebody to get out on the perimeter and give us that play. So his body type is such that he could be a physical player. I think now that he's at that running back position, he is in the right place."

Notre Dame had two 100-yard rushers Saturday for the second time this season, with Cierre Wood breaking the century mark against BYU and Miami and George Atkinson III joining him against the Hurricanes. The versatility presented with a returning 1,000-yard back (Wood), a former slot man (Riddick) and a home run threat (Atkinson) helps keep defenses honest.

That dynamic may never be more important than Saturday night, when the Irish hope to pull the upset and get to 8-0.

"They have a great front four, they stop the run very well," Riddick said of the 5-1 Sooners. "They have real good, big D-tackles, so we have our hands full. But coming into a game it's always 50-50. That's how we look at it. Not to be redundant by any means, but we're looking forward toward this challenge."