Brian Kelly has beat home the importance of offensive balance over the last few weeks, after initially dismissing it in early September. But after abysmal rushing attacks against Purdue and Michigan State (combined: 59 rushes for 279 yards, a 2.9 yards/carry average), Kelly preached balance, and that's paid off in the last two weeks.
Balance didn't erase the three bad interceptions thrown by Tommy Rees against Oklahoma, as the Irish quarterback still sputtered to nine completions in 24 attempts despite a ground game that gouged the Sooners for 220 yards on 29 carries. The payoff came a week later, when Arizona State was forced to respect George Atkinson and the Irish running backs because of what they did against Oklahoma.
So while Notre Dame ran for 145 yards on 37 carries (a 3.92 yards/carry average), it opened up more for Rees, who threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns.
But it's been an up-and-down year for Notre Dame running backs, with little consistency among the ranks. Amir Carlisle began the season on a tear, but after rushing for 16 yards on 11 carries against Purdue (he also lost a key fumble), he's only garnered eight carries in Notre Dame's last three games. He also hasn't proven to be reliable pass-catching target Notre Dame hoped he would be, as he's struggled doing the things Theo Riddick did so well in 2012.
Atkinson had four uninspiring games to begin the season, but his 80-yard touchdown run against Oklahoma was the culmination of being told, essentially, that if he continued to be easily tackled he wouldn't play. While Atkinson's line against Arizona State doesn't look great (18 carries, 54 yards), he had a few negative rushes that knocked 16 yards off his total -- a hallmark of Arizona State's generally-weak run defense.
Freshman Tarean Folston appears to have entered the Irish running back rotation, too -- while he didn't play against ASU, he had four carries vs. Michigan State and two vs. Oklahoma, and has been routinely praised by Kelly over the last few weeks. Fellow freshman Greg Bryant was on Notre Dame's depth chart last week, but only has six carries on the year and could be a target for a medical redshirt.
The one guy with a defined role here appears to be Cam McDaniel, who Notre Dame heavily relies upon to close out wins. In Notre Dame's four victories, McDaniel has 59 carries for 247 yards; in Notre Dame's two losses he has four carries for 16 yards.
This is a group that hasn't really found itself through six games, but has shown flashes of the kind of production Notre Dame's offense needs in the second half. Getting consistency out of the backfield is the next step, no matter who's running the ball.
Position midterm grade: C
More grades: Quarterbacks