Irish RBs prepared to make or break BCS Championship

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Irish RBs prepared to make or break BCS Championship

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Arguably the biggest key to Notre Dame's offensive success Monday in the BCS Championship is to establish the run early, which would help open up the passing game for Everett Golson later on. For all of his strides in the last few months, Notre Dame isn't likely to beat Alabama on the arm of Golson; instead it'll be thanks to the legs of Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III.

Notre Dame's backfield dynamic has changed plenty during the 2012 season, when it began with Riddick and Atkinson plowing through Navy in Dublin. Wood's return after a two-game suspension brought the team's leading rusher from 2011 back into the fold, but he hasn't got the volume of carries he'd like this season. And Atkinson has slowly been phased out of Notre Dame's playbook after a breakout game against Miami.

The Irish will enter the BCS Championship with Riddick as the team's feature back. He's carried the ball at least 15 times in five of Notre Dame's last six games, with the exception being in a 38-0 blowout over Wake Forest.

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"It seemed like he should've never played receiver before with the way he runs the football," Alabama defensive end Damion Square observed. "He looked like he was a born running back with his one-step quickness and the way that he hits the hole with the power that he has."

Riddick is a natural running back, although a stacked depth chart shifted him to wide receiver in 2010 and 2011 before returning to the backfield. But he's eclipsed Wood in the eyes of Notre Dame's coaches, which has left Wood with an average of just 11 carries per game this season.

"It's been difficult, but the thing I tried to do when I start getting carries like that is make plays sooner and faster," Wood said of his decreased role. "Toward midway throughout the season, that's what I started doing. I'll only have seven carries or 100-something yards or something like that. I just try to make big runs as soon as I can. It was just a new challenge for me, I embraced it and welcomed it with open arms."

That strategy led to a haymaker run against Oklahoma, with Wood racing 62 yards up the middle for a first-quarter touchdown that silenced the largest crowd in Oklahoma Memorial Stadium history. It's a play Square said he's watched over and over again in an attempt to diagnose what the Sooners did wrong, and if Alabama is susceptible to the same fate.

"That takes the air out of you, when a guy splits your defense and runs for a touchdown like that coming out of the backfield, no doubt about it," Square said.

While Wood has seen some success with that mindset, Atkinson hasn't. For all his explosiveness and blazing speed, Atkinson's best game since Oct. 6 against Miami was a seven-carry, 34-yard effort in a low-pressure situation against Wake Forest. Perhaps the five-week layoff did him some good, but the sophomore appears to be a work in progress at this point.

"We just know we gotta take advantage of each carry," Atkinson said, "and what we do with those carries is going to affect how many times we're going to get it."

Atkinson's role will likely increase in 2013, with Riddick's tenure ending Monday night and Wood considering the NFL. Wood said he'll make a final decision on whether to stay or go after Monday's National Championship, but reading between the lines, he didn't sound like someone who planned on sticking around for 2013.

"If I feel the time is right or if I feel that's what I want to do, then the decision will be made," Wood added.

Still, Wood's focus is on Alabama, and what he can do to help Notre Dame -- and, also, himself -- on college football's biggest stage. If he and Notre Dame's running backs can make Alabama fear them on Monday, Notre Dame's offense very well could be in good shape.

That's easier said than done, though.

"They don't get moved," Riddick said of Alabama's defensive line. "That's a huge problem if you can't move the front four and create holes.

"You just cannot become one-dimensional against this team."

Illinois State, Loyola, Northern Iowa all in action Saturday on CSN and CSN+

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USA TODAY

Illinois State, Loyola, Northern Iowa all in action Saturday on CSN and CSN+

Illinois State, Loyola and Northern Iowa will all be in action Saturday.

And you can catch all three games on CSN and CSN+.

Tennessee-Martin at Illinois State, 2 p.m., CSN+

The Redbirds (4-3) are coming off of a tough loss on the road at Tulsa, but they're off to a solid start early in the season. Senior point guard Paris Lee, a Proviso East product, is having a monster season for Illinois State so far, averaging 15 points, 6.4 assists and three rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from 3-point range.

Tennessee-Martin (8-2) is off to a great start with only a pair of road losses to SEC opponents Ole Miss and Kentucky.

Milwaukee at Loyola, 3 p.m., CSN

The Ramblers (8-2) have won three straight games and will try to carry that momentum into Horizon League play. Junior forward Aundre Jackson is off to a great start, averaging 16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

Loyola features a few former local high school stars. Senior Milton Doyle (Marshall) and junior Donte Ingram (Simeon) are both playing well.

Milwaukee (4-5) is off to a decent start in a rebuilding year under new head coach LaVall Jordan and is coming off a road win against Montana State.

Rockford Boylan product Brock Stull is the Panthers' leading scorer and rebounder. The sophomore guard is averaging 11.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.

North Dakota at Northern Iowa, 7 p.m., CSN

Northern Iowa (4-4) is coming off of a blowout win over South Dakota State.

Senior Jeremy Morgan has been doing it all for the Panthers. He leads the team in points, rebounds and assists per game. Morgan is putting up 15.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest this season.

North Dakota (5-2) has two straight wins, including a victory over in-state rival North Dakota State.

The Fighting Hawks are led by Quinton Hooker, who's averaging 16.7 points per game this season.

Wednesday on CSN: Northern Iowa hosts South Dakota State

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USA TODAY

Wednesday on CSN: Northern Iowa hosts South Dakota State

Northern Iowa tries to break its four-game losing streak as they hose South Dakota State on Wednesday night. This game will be carried live on CSN with a 7:00 p.m. tip.

The Panthers (3-4) started the season with wins over power-conference teams like Arizona State and Oklahoma before dropping the last few games.

Senior guard Jeremy Morgan is off to a strong start this season as he's putting up 15.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 2.9 assists per game. 

They'll get a solid test from South Dakota State as the Jackrabbits have one of the best mid-major players in the country in sophomore Mike Daum.

The 6-foot-9 Daum is averaging 20.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this season as he's the frontrunner for Player of the Year in the Summit League this season.