Surprise! Notre Dame not passing up chance to run
Turns out, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar was a little off on his preseason prediction that the Irish would have a 1,000-yard rusher.
The Irish could wind up with two.
Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray have turned perceptions about Brian Kelly's pass-happy tendencies on their head, each rushing for more than 730 yards already. Notre Dame has 23 rushing touchdowns so far, one fewer than the Irish managed in the previous two seasons combined, and is on track for its most yardage on the ground since 2000.
''Never. Never would have thought that in a million years,'' Gray said of Kelly and the Irish going old school on offense. ''If somebody would have said that to me, if you would have tried to use that as a recruiting tool, I wouldn't have believed it.''
The Irish, who moved back into The Associated Press poll this week at No. 24, host Boston College on Saturday in the home finale.
Kelly's reputation as a coach who prefers the passing game is well-deserved. His 2009 Cincinnati team led the country in pass efficiency (166.19) and was sixth in yards passing (320.33), and starting quarterback Tony Pike threw for 2,520 yards and 29 touchdowns - despite missing three games with an arm injury.
His 2006 squad at Central Michigan ranked 19th in the country in yards passing (252.4) while freshman quarterback Dan LeFevour threw for 2,869 yards and 25 TDs. And when Kelly was at Grand Valley State, Curt Anes threw for almost 10,600 career yards, Jeff Fox became the first Lakers quarterback to throw for more than 2,000 yards in multiple seasons, and receiver David Kircus set the Division II single-season record for touchdown receptions with 35 in 2002.
''I think sometimes you have to overcome perception,'' Kelly said. ''But I've had multiple 1,000-yard rushers when we had the depth at that position and we had an experienced offensive line. So yeah, once in a while you have to be able to say, `Look at my entire body of work, not what we had to do to win football games over the last few years.'''
On paper, the Irish (7-3) seem made for a fun-and-gun offense. They have one of the best receivers in the country in Michael Floyd, and the rest of the corps is as strong as it is deep. Quarterback Tommy Rees has a completion rate of 67 percent, worse than Andrew Luck but better than Matt Barkley.
And coming into the year, Wood had yet to crack the 100-yard mark in a game while Gray had 309 yards rushing.
In three seasons.
''I was actually joking with Tommy Rees the other day and he said, `You have 11 touchdowns? If you'd have told me in the offseason you would score 11 touchdowns, I'd have laughed at you,''' Gray said. ''It just shows what a guy does with hard work, great coaching and listening to his coaches, and continuing to just stay the course. That's all I've done and I'm blessed to be around great guys, great teammates and coaches who believe in me. I just believed in myself and continue to be better every week.''
Gray arrived at Notre Dame as one of the most highly touted running backs in the country, but never managed to live up to the hype. He played sparingly his first three years, starting just one game, and was supplanted by Wood on the depth chart last season when Gray was slowed by a knee injury. Gray never complained, and did everything the coaches asked: special teams, scout team.
But when he went to watch Notre Dame's Pro Day last spring, something clicked.
''Seeing those guys competing and doing those things, I was just looking at it and saying, `I can do everything they're doing and I feel like maybe I can do it better,''' he said. ''I thank God that I had such a humbling experience when I first came here because that really made me strong. It fueled my fire, definitely.''
So did his costly fumble in the season opener against South Florida, returned 96 yards for a score in the Bulls' 23-20 upset.
Rather than banish Gray for his mistake, Kelly challenged him to make amends for it.
''I am going to be remembered for that fumble,'' Gray said. ''I'm (also) going to be remembered as the guy who made a mistake early on, but persevered through it and continued to play hard, continued to come back week after week and have an exceptional senior season.''
Gray has rushed for at least one touchdown in the last seven games, and his 11 this season are the most by an Irish running back since Autry Denson had 15 in 1998. He has 730 yards rushing, and his average of 7.1 yards per carry would tie him for fourth-best in school history. Wood, meanwhile, has rushed for 907 yards.
Notre Dame has never had two 900-yard rushers, let alone two who've reached 1,000 yards.
''That would be pretty special,'' Gray said. ''We're just trying to continue to play consistent. We think that if we continue to do the things that we've been doing, we both can reach that.''
And if they do, it could pay dividends for Notre Dame well beyond this season.
''Recruits who look at this university and say we're a pass-offense team, we have two 1,000-yard rushers,'' Gray said. ''That can be something pretty special.''