Notre Dame hoping for big things out of the backfield

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Notre Dame hoping for big things out of the backfield

Both Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix have mentioned during fall practice that they don't need to do too much, just get the ball to Notre Dame's playmakers and let them rack up the yards and points.

Last year, that strategy meant feeding Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert as much as possible. This year, Eifert's still around, but there doesn't appear to be one single wide receiver who's in a position to take over for Floyd's production.

Perhaps one will emerge, but as the Irish barrel toward their season opener against Navy Sept. 1, most of the offense's playmaking ability appears to be in the backfield.

Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III comprise a a three-headed monster at the running back position, although that doesn't mean they'll necessarily line up in the backfield on every down.

"We're going to play all of our backs," coach Brian Kelly said last week. "When we talk about all of our backs, they're playing both wide receiver, slot position, we can move them anywhere on the field as well as play the running back position."

Of the three, Wood is probably the most pigeon-holed into being a running back, although that doesn't mean he's not an adept pass-catcher -- he has 47 receptions for 359 yards in the last two seasons. But Atkinson and Riddick, especially, are able to take on more of a "hybrid" role, lining up either as a running back or receiver.

"I've seen great growth in George Atkinson," Kelly said. "We always look to George as somebody that maybe he's just a running back. Well, he's really evolved into somebody that can catch the football for us.

"We know about Theo, obviously with his stint at the wide receiver position, and Cierre has really made great strides over the past 10 days or so. They're all going to play, and it would not be a surprise if a couple of them are on the field at the same time."

Riddick came to Notre Dame as a running back, but was flipped to wide receiver after his freshman year, when Kelly's coaching staff took over in South Bend. He's caught 78 passes in the last two seasons while only rushing 25 times, but those numbers may even out for his senior year.

"It works out very well -- I have to know every position," Riddick said of his hybrid role in the offense. "I have great knowledge of the playbook and Im moving around, so you can never focus on just one position that Im playing."

Atkinson flashed his playmaking ability last year on kick returns, taking two back during his freshman season to tie a Notre Dame record. He'll remain there, but he -- along with Wood and Riddick -- have seen work with the punt return unit in fall camp.

Riddick was slated to be Notre Dame's punt returner last year, but struggled with catching the ball early on. He was eventually replaced by John Goodman for a few weeks until Kelly decided to go with Floyd in that spot.

"I wouldnt say uncomfortable, I was always comfortable," Riddick said of his punt returning woes last year. "Confidence was never a problem. But having the chance to do it again, I guess well see."

Notre Dame is hoping for more out of its punt returners, just like it's hoping for more out of its offense. And with an inexperienced quarterback leading the charge against Navy, the success of the team's running backs will take on added importance.

"Our team is so good around us, the quarterback position, we don't have to win the games, we just have to get the ball to our horses and let the playmakers do their job and just minimize mistakes," Hendrix said earlier in camp. "We moved backwards sometimes last year, and as long as we're always moving forward, never having negatives plays we're going to be a very good football team."

The 3 Bears necessities for win No. 3

The 3 Bears necessities for win No. 3

Insert title of this "Bowl" game here...

Two teams. Three wins combined. December. So much for holiday cheer. The snow may provide a certain Christmas element on the lakefront Sunday. But something different has to happen for the Bears defensively. In their spirit of giving, the 49ers have allowed a league-high 76 points off their turnovers. Problem is, the Bears have just eight of them in eleven games. If that San Francisco generosity doesn't change – either by Vic Fangio's defense finally making plays despite the core of their defense missing, or by the visitors finding a way to protect the ball in those conditions after practicing in Orlando all week – it's a golden chance for the Bears to gain a smidge of momentum before becoming a factor in the division race (because they face all three other NFC North contenders in their final four games).

1. Read zone read

Colin Kaepernick has grown much more comfortable with time in Chip Kelly's offense. He had the Dolphins hanging on for dear life until the clock struck zero last week. He became just the sixth quarterback in league history to pass for three touchdowns in a game while rushing for over 100 (no, Bobby Douglass isn't one). The challenge becomes greater minus the talented inside linebacker tandem of Danny Trevathan (injury) and Jerrell Freeman (suspension). It becomes even greater if Leonard Floyd's quickness and speed is taken away as a shadowing option as he recovers from being carried off the field on a flat board two weeks ago. He's listed as questionable. So that makes it imperative for inside replacements John Timu and Nick Kwiatkowski to find a way to be instinctive while remaining disciplined enough to contain the league's best rushing quarterback by yards per attempt (8.1).

2. Don't stray from the run

Give this Niners defense without NoVorro Bowman and Eric Reid enough opportunities to be gashed, and they'll let you. Too many times the pregame formula has been for Jordan Howard to get the ball, only to find reasons not to – whether it's looking at the clock while trailing by double digits, too much traffic at the line of scrimmage or panic after injuries up front (to name a few). The 172 rushing yards per game allowed by San Francisco is the worst in eight years (Detroit).  Howard's 5.14 average gain per attempt is fifth in the NFL. Enough said.

3. Catch the ball!!!

Okay, Marquess, Josh and Deonte. Okay, Cam, Jordan and Jeremy. Okay Daniel (and/or Eddie?). We know conditions might be a little slick if it's snowing/sleeting/raining. You're supposed to be among the best in the world at what you do, even if you're down the original depth chart. Can you get your mitts on the football and hang on to it this week? Help your guy Matt out a little bit? After all, if you cut last week's nightmare in half, and maybe you're shooting for (oooh!) a fourth win Sunday, not a third.

Get set for Sunday's noon kickoff at 11 a.m. on CSN as ex-Bears Jim Miller, Lance Briggs and Alex Brown join Chris on "Bears Preagme Live." Then as soon as the second quarter ends, come back here to CSNChicago.com, where Jim and Chris break down the first 30 minutes and go over second half adjustments. And finally, when the game goes final on Fox, switch immediately back to CSN as Chris and the three former Bears give you 90 minutes of reaction, analysis, live press conferences and locker room interviews on "Bears Postgame Live."

Sub-.500 Hawkeyes on four-game losing streak after home loss to Omaha

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USA TODAY

Sub-.500 Hawkeyes on four-game losing streak after home loss to Omaha

Things are not going too well in Iowa City.

The Hawkeyes saw their losing streak stretch to four games Saturday with an upsetting 98-89 home loss to Omaha.

Iowa has been a high-scoring team this season, entering the weekend with the Big Ten's No. 2 scoring offense at 85.6 points a game, but it's also been the league's worst defensive team, allowing an average of 85 points a game. And that's before the Mavericks nearly hit the century mark on Saturday.

The Hawkeyes were out-rebounded, including a big advantage for the Mavericks on the offensive boards, where they turned 19 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points. Omaha's bench outscored Iowa's bench, 37-9, and the Mavericks had a 40-26 scoring edge in the paint.

Trailing by six after allowing 53 first-half points, the Hawkeyes led for just 18 seconds over the game's final 21-plus minutes.

Peter Jok, the Big Ten's leading scorer, poured in 33 points in this one, though efficiency was not his strong suit, going 8-for-21 from the field. He added 10 rebounds for a double-double.

Iowa's losing streak stands at four, the loss to Omaha linking with losses to Virginia, Memphis and Notre Dame. In the last three games, the Hawkeyes have surrendered an average of 96.7 points. In four of their five losses on the season — the heretofore unmentioned one coming against Seton Hall — opponents have scored at least 91 points.

The Hawkeyes' only wins this season have come against Kennesaw State, Savannah State and Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

Iowa has five more non-conference games — including a date with ranked in-state rival Iowa State — prior to the start of Big Ten play at the end of the month.