Atkinson's breakout gives Irish balance

Atkinson's breakout gives Irish balance
September 30, 2013, 5:00 pm
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Amid the hang-wringing of alma mater-gate, there was a positive that emerged from Notre Dame's 35-21 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday, and it involved the football side of things.

George Atkinson rushed 14 times for 148 yards, including an 80-yard burst that injected life into Notre Dame's second-half comeback bid. It was by far the best Atkinson looked this year, and was the best game he's had since last year's Shamrock Series date against Miami (10 carries, 123 yards, 1 TD).

In Notre Dame's first four games, Atkinson's production was fairly muted: 24 carries for 121 yards, with a longest rush of 16 yards. The guy who began 2013 atop Notre Dame's depth chart appeared to have been passed over in favor of Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel, and the message from his coaches was clear:

"We didn't think George ran physical enough," coach Brian Kelly said. "We told him that. We told him if he wanted to be the starter, that he can't get tackled by his ankles. He can't be the guy that goes down."

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Atkinson wasn't easy to bring down against Oklahoma, as he coupled tougher running with a vision and decisiveness in hitting the holes that produced his big afternoon.

"I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball," Kelly said.

The next step is doing it on a consistent basis. Following his two biggest games last year (Navy and Miami), Atkinson combined to have four carries for 21 yards. He went up against a more top-heavy depth chart last year -- senior Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood were the go-to backs -- something Notre Dame doesn't have this year.

But Atkinson, Carlisle and McDaniel have all played well at times this year, though none of them have showed the week-to-week consistency Riddick brought in 2012 or Wood and Jonas Gray did in 2011. Notre Dame doesn't necessarily need that, but its offense does need an effective running game each week.

"I didn't want this to become Tommy Rees throwing it 50 times a game," Kelly explained. "But that's the way it turned out in the first couple weeks, because it was pretty obvious the way teams were going to defend. ... For Tommy, it's best for him if we can have more of a balance on offense, and that's why it's important to get the running game going."

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Kelly's tune there has changed -- while Rees was throwing for 300 yards the first three weeks, he dismissed the importance of run-pass balance, but with Rees struggling the last two games he's emphasized it more.

And with good reason, too: Even though Rees sputtered nine completions in 24 attempts for 104 yards and three interceptions, Atkinson's 80-yard touchdown run was a welcome reminder that Notre Dame can find the end zone by trying something else besides slinging 50 throws into man coverage.

"I hope he brings that game with him each and every week because it was sure fun to watch George Atkinson run today," Kelly said. "Wasn't it fun to watch him run? That's the way he should run each and every week. I think he's capable of doing that, and we just need that from him consistently."