For all the talk about Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis taking over play-calling duties, the answer to the Fighting Irish's scoring problems turned out to be pretty simple: Hand the ball to a tailback.
Against Navy yesterday, Weis spread the workload among three backs - junior James Aldridge and sophomores Robert Hughes and Armando Allen - as Notre Dame rushed for 230 yards. The backfield trio spearheaded three successive second-half drives that produced 17 points in Notre Dame's 27-21 victory at M&T Bank Stadium
Weis said he decided at halftime to shift from a downfield passing game to shorter passes and, especially, the run.
"They were playing a soft shell and dropping eight a lot of the time - and there weren't very many windows," Weis said of Navy's pass defense.
While Notre Dame expected that defensive scheme because the Midshipmen had shown it previously, Weis said it still flustered his offense.
"I came in at halftime and told them we were now going to spread them out and we were just going to run the ball until I get sick of running it," he said.
As it turned out, running the ball was the prescription for what had been ailing the Irish's offense.
Before yesterday, nearly 70 percent of Notre Dame's offense had come from the arm of quarterback Jimmy Clausen, but last week the team was shut out by Boston College, and even the Irish's first-half touchdown against the Mids yesterday came on a blocked punt. That meant Notre Dame had gone six quarters and four overtimes (beginning with a loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 1), nearly 100 minutes, without scoring a touchdown on offense.
Weis said this past week he would call the plays against Navy because offensive coordinator Mike Haywood would miss practices to attend a funeral.
Allen broke the offensive touchdown drought on an 11-yard run to give the Irish a 17-7 lead with 9:31 left in the third quarter to cap a drive on which he carried the ball four times for 31 yards. Notre Dame's next series belonged to Hughes, who ran six times for 49 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown that made it 24-7. And on the next drive that ended with a 36-yard field goal, giving Notre Dame a 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Aldridge was featured on six attempts for 30 yards.
"When you can get everyone in the rotation, that's great," said Hughes who had 68 yards on 13 carries. Aldridge led the Irish with 80 yards on 16 carries, and Allen gained 60 yards on eight rushes.
At halftime, Notre Dame had 83 rushing yards but piled up 147 more in the final two quarters. Hughes and Allen said it was encouraging to hear Weis make the commitment to the ground game in the locker room.
"We knew we were going to have an opportunity to run the ball as well as we can," Allen said.
While Weis said the decision to ram the ball at Navy was based on the Mids' pass defense scheme, the Irish's size advantage was also a significant factor.
"They ran the same plays in the second half that they ran in the first half," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "But their mass took over, their big guys took over."