SOUTH BEND — There weren’t many negatives in Saturday’s 52-20 victory for Notre Dame over Navy, but a recent trend did continue against the Midshipmen: lack of production from the running back position.
Quarterback Ian Book led the Fighting Irish in rushing for a third-straight week Saturday, running for 31 yards on five attempts. He had 139 yards on 12 carries the previous week against Duke and 50 yards on 13 attempts two weeks ago against Virginia Tech.
The last time a running back led Notre Dame in rushing was the last time the Irish lost, a 45-14 defeat at the hands of Michigan on Oct. 26. On that night, redshirt freshman Jahmir Smith had 15 yards on five carries to lead the Notre Dame rushing attack.
It’s a sharp decline from the first half of the season that saw redshirt junior running back Tony Jones find success in multiple games. Jones had four 100-plus yard rushing performances in the Irish’s first six games, including 175 yards on 26 carries in a 30-27 victory over USC on Oct. 12. Since its midseason bye week, though, Notre Dame has struggled to run the ball.
In the first six games of 2019, the Irish averaged 192 yards rushing per game. In the last four contests, that number is just 136.4 yards per game.
Despite a decrease in production, coach Brian Kelly is confident in the group.
“I think we know what we have there,” Kelly said. “They were so assignment-correct in blitz pickup and blitz detail that allowed us to hit a lot of big plays (against Navy). Tony Jones, C’Bo Flemister, Jahmir Smith were all outstanding in pass protection, and that’s a big piece of what we need done.
“Obviously, we don’t have Adrian Peterson back there, but we have a bunch of guys that are giving everything that they have to contribute in all the ‘dirty’ areas.”
Injuries have played a factor, as Jones missed the Virginia Tech game with a cartilage issue. Redshirt sophomore Jafar Armstrong missed the first five games — with the exception of the first drive in the season opener against Louisville — due to an abdomen injury.
Kelly cited the return from injury as what has led to a decrease in production for Armstrong. Since returning against USC, Armstrong has 33 carries for 60 yards. He also has nine receptions for 73 yards, but still hasn’t found the end zone in 2019 after scoring seven touchdowns in 2018.
“I think it’s been a process for him,” Kelly said. “It’s taken him time to develop the core strength back. He had a pretty significant injury; for him to get back on the field, the way he did is a great testament to him. But that doesn’t mean you’re back to the level of playing the game before the injury.”
The future does look bright for the Irish, though, as all five running backs listed on the depth chart — Jones, Armstrong, Smith, Flemister and Avery Davis — are eligible to return in 2020. Couple that with a redshirting Kyren Williams and incoming five-star recruit Chris Tyree, and depth will not be an issue for the Irish for the foreseeable future.
“I think, in the future, it’ll kind of work itself out,” Kelly said. “I’m not that really concerned about the future as much as getting the most out of the group right now. I’m really happy with what they’re giving us.”
CHASE DID WHAT?!?!
Chase Claypool had a career day Saturday against Navy, hauling in seven catches for 117 yards and four touchdowns. That touchdown number isn’t even half of what the senior did back in middle school, though.
When asked afterwards if he had ever caught four touchdown passes in a game, Claypool said, “I haven’t caught four touchdown passes,” implying he had scored more than four in a game before. When asked a follow-up of how many he had, the senior said, “Yeah, I had 10 one time.”
A 10-touchdown performance in an eighth-grade game in his home country of Canada. How did that happen?
“It’s a long story,” Claypool said. “It was against our rival, No. 1 team in the league. They ran a triple option, so similar to (Navy). We knew that every possession we got was kind of going to be important. I don’t know, we just had a good game plan. Kind of went out there and ran around a little bit.”
Good game plans against teams that play triple-option offense seems to be Claypool’s forte, as he now has 14 career touchdowns against said teams.
Kelly said linebacker Shayne Simon dislocated his kneecap Saturday against Navy. An MRI was done Sunday to determine the extent of the damage. Kelly said Simon will not play this week against Boston College.
Wide receiver Javon McKinley did not play against Navy with a foot sprain. The senior will go through regular workouts Monday, and Kelly hopes McKinley can play on senior day against the Eagles.