NCF Nation: George Atkinson

Kelly, Irish get class they need

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
Brian Kelly spoke like Brian Kelly for much of his Wednesday press conference, touting the distinctions of his program by stressing 40-year life decisions (not four) and by mentioning the different (though not necessarily better) shopping aisle that is Notre Dame football.

For the first time in what felt like a long time, the fifth-year Irish coach enjoyed a relatively drama-free signing day. His 22 verbal commitments going into the day all delivered on their word without any extracurriculars, and he even added an early-morning surprise from four-star defensive tackle Daniel Cage, giving the Irish their second win over Michigan State since September and further beefing up a class that finished with more linemen (12) than every other position combined (11).

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThis may not have been Notre Dame's highest-ranked recruiting class, but fifth-year coach Brian Kelly has developed a recruiting identity for the Irish.
But Kelly hit on another theme rather decisively early on, one that struck his program fairly hard in the weeks following last season's 9-4 campaign: the pros, and where they fit into the plans of his program.

"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship," he said. "If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want."

No, this is likely not a coincidence in light of the early NFL departures of Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, the first Irish underclassmen in the Kelly era to leave school without their degrees since Kyle Rudolph back in Year 1. And this does not exactly vibe smoothly with the program's "Pot of Gold" initiative that made headlines recently when Notre Dame sent packages to recruits containing 477 letters -- one for every draft pick to come out of Notre Dame.

But Kelly was deliberate from the get-go. He was cocksure. His was a seasoned voice speaking after four years at one place, having weathered the sleeplessness that accompanies a national title game appearance, four underclassman departures, and a number of defections and suspensions in what is quickly turning into a long Irish tenure.

And on a day when positivity and hyperbole reigned across the college football world, Kelly allowed for some genuine self-evaluation. He said he had to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL. He conceded that he had not initially cast a wide enough net when evaluating prospects on the defensive line, the unit that took the biggest hit after the 2013 season. He might have cut the sales job short for the sake of simply coaching his football team, comfortable and confident in what he wants and what it takes to win big at Notre Dame.

This Irish recruiting class, ranked 11th by ESPN RecruitingNation, is not his best. It's not nearly as good as last year's, which was ranked fourth before losing a top-10 player in the country. Nor is it as good as consecutive ninth-ranked classes in 2012 and 2011, which ended up seeing five of its top players move on to different schools.

The ranking mattered little to Kelly or his staff. They had already taken their third Irish team to a perfect regular season two years ago with somewhat of a hodgepodge cast of characters still finding their way on their respective sides of the ball. They likely believe that, if not for a gross academic oversight by Everett Golson, they could have been bound for potentially bigger and better things this past fall.

So what if this year's haul lacks a five-star phenom. So what if it features eight three-star prospects.

"I just was a little bit too narrow-focused on where we were with our defensive line, and I needed to just be a little bit more -- I needed to change my view of how we recruited defensive linemen and open it up a little bit more," Kelly said. "It was strictly a decision that I needed to make. We did it a little late, and we were fortunate that we were able to get two very quality defensive linemen late in the cycle here, but we've made that adjustment in our profile."

The adjustment paid dividends through the signing day fax from Cage and through a trio of three-star newcomers who committed in the previous three months: Jhonathon Williams (November), Kolin Hill (December) and Peter Mokwuah (January).

These were hardly highly sought-after prospects, at least by Notre Dame's usual standards. There probably isn't a Tuitt walking through that door. But Kelly has learned better than to allow a departure like that one change a season's outlook, showing enough faith in his player-development process -- and in an oh-so-close-to-being-filled roster, now at 84 scholarships -- to secure a foundation for years to come.

"I think if you really boil it down, it's about the front seven and the offensive line," he said. "Yeah, there's some great skill players that I'll talk about, but you're winning up front, and building that depth in the front seven and the offensive line really stands out in this class, and then having some really good players across the board for us."

If that's not going to jump out on brochures, so be it. Notre Dame has an identity, and its leaders show enough resolve to push the envelope with a class that's smaller in stars but tailored in fit.
For three years, Brian Kelly had success like few others in recruiting players back to school. Sure, Kyle Rudolph left after Year 1 of the Kelly era, but since then the Notre Dame coach had successfully gotten Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin to come back to the Irish for their fourth (and, in Martin's case, fifth) seasons of college ball.

That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.

Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.

(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)

Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCam McDaniel (33) led the Irish with 705 rushing yards in 2013.
Leaving: George Atkinson III
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.

Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.

Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:

It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.

Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.

Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).

Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)

What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.

What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.

To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.

What to watch: Notre Dame vs. Temple

August, 29, 2013
Here's what to keep an eye on Saturday when the Irish host the Owls.

1. Running backs: William Mahone is out with an ankle sprain, but five other backs will get the chance to make plays Saturday, starting with George Atkinson III. Seeing how often, and how well, the offense runs the pistol is also noteworthy.

2. Jaylon Smith: The five-star freshman will likely start from Day 1, giving all a glimpse of what made him such a prized prospect and what allowed him to ascend up the depth chart so quickly in camp.

3. Defensive depth: If there were ever a game on Notre Dame's schedule to figure out what it has down the depth chart, especially on the increasingly thin defensive line, this is it. And not just because of the expected heat. Keep an eye on fresh faces Cole Luke and Max Redfield in the secondary.

100-day checklist: Notre Dame

May, 21, 2013
Notre Dame does not have quite as many question marks heading into the 2013 season as it did last summer. For one, the Irish have their quarterback of the future. They also have a coach who proved during a perfect 2012 regular season that he is the right man for the job. And they have -- for the next 24 years, at least -- erased questions about their relevancy within the college football landscape.

But no teams are perfect (seriously, it hasn't been done since Auburn in 2010-11). So, with 100 days standing between us and the college football season -- and 102 standing between the Irish and their Aug. 31 opener against Temple -- we will take a look at three things the program needs to cross off its checklist this summer.

1. Find offensive playmakers: George Atkinson III bulked up this offseason and did not run for the track team to focus on adding to his workload. He is the most experienced man in an Irish backfield that lost its top two rushers from a season ago, but he will be pushed by redshirt sophomore Amir Carlisle, redshirt freshman William Mahone, junior Cam McDaniel and incoming freshman Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, both of whom are four-star prospects. The three-man battle to replace Tyler Eifert at tight end, meanwhile, will be waged among Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch.

2. Integrate incoming freshmen: Bryant and Folston are two of the incoming freshmen who appear ready-made for the college level. Linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Max Redfield figure to see time as freshmen, too. Early enrollee receivers such as Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, both of whom saw added time following the spring departures of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, also may see playing time.

3. Stay levelheaded. This really shouldn't be much of a problem for a program and players who seemingly always have the bull's-eye on their back, regardless of the win-loss record. Still, a renaissance 2012 campaign and a return to college football's elite will only up the ante for this group to do similar things this fall, especially with so many pointing to Alabama's title-game rout as a sign that 2012 may have been a fluke.
Notre Dame returns to the practice field Wednesday morning after a week off for the Easter holiday. Five sessions are in the bag and 10 remain, including the April 20 Blue-Gold spring game.

Like every team every season, the Irish are welcoming new faces in several new places. Among the biggest for the program heading into the 2013 season are at running back, center and Mike linebacker.

Here is a look at how those battles are shaping up as spring practice No. 6 takes place today.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Atkinson III
Matt Cashore/US PresswireIrish coaches have talked up George Atkinson III in the chase for playing time at running back.
This is, frankly, a blanket term for a backfield that will likely feature more than one person at a time throughout much of the coming season. But the Irish did lose their top two rushers in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, and with (at least) a strong left side of the offensive line returning, it will be interesting to see how the unit shakes out. Rising junior George Atkinson III has the most experience among returners, and head coach Brian Kelly and position coach Tony Alford have been high on him so far this spring, praising his weight training (he's up seven pounds, to 217) and ability to catch the ball in the slot. Can Atkinson be the typical 20-carries-per-game, between-the-tackles back? Will it matter? USC transfer Amir Carlisle also drew plenty of praise in the same role this spring before the rising redshirt sophomore suffered a broken collarbone March 23. Rising junior Cam McDaniel and rising redshirt freshman William Mahone are back there as well, and the program will welcome in talented prospects Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston this summer, at least one of whom may be primed to make an immediate impact.

From Brett Perotta of the ESPN Stats & Information blog, citing seven signees in college football who will make an immediate impact in 2013:
RB Greg Bryant, Notre Dame

Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are gone, leaving a vacancy in the backfield and over 300 carries to go around. Bryant is the first top-10 running back the Irish have signed since James Aldridge in 2006. Notre Dame posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry as a team last season and will return three starters on the offensive line. With returning dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson, Bryant should have plenty of room to work.
So much of how Notre Dame's offensive line shakes out will depend on this position battle. With fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt back manning the left side of the line, and with redshirt junior Christian Lombard seemingly back for Year 2 as the starting right tackle, the Irish need to identify Braxston Cave's successor in the middle. Redshirt sophomore Nick Martin, Zack's younger brother, was running with the first team during the start of the first spring practice, March 20, and figures to have the inside track there right now. Nick Martin served as something of a utility man on the second-team line throughout last season. Redshirt sophomore Matt Hegarty, cleared following a November mini-stroke that threatened his football career, should give Martin a push here as well. Right guard is the other open position battle, and if Kelly or position coach Harry Hiestand deem tackle sophomore Ronnie Stanley or early enrollee Steve Elmer ready, there is always the chance that Lombard could slide to right guard.

Jarrett Grace was talked about a lot last spring by the coaching staff but, frankly, just was not needed so much in 2012. Not with Manti Te'o having the kind of season he had, recording seven interceptions en route to a Heisman Trophy runner-up campaign that saw him rarely leave the field. Now that position is vacant following three consecutive 100-tackle seasons, and Grace, a redshirt sophomore, has the inside track to take over inside. Fifth-year senior Dan Fox, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, is capable of playing both inside positions, and fellow fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese has resumed his role as the Will linebacker after splitting duties there with Fox the past two seasons. No one should expect anything resembling Te'o's All-America-type run from the position so soon, but with starters, and depth, returning at every other linebacker spot, the Mike is the position to keep an eye on during the offseason.

Video: Can special teams help Notre Dame?

January, 6, 2013

George Atkinson III talks about how Notre Dame can make some big plays on Monday with special teams.

It's game day at Notre Dame Stadium

November, 3, 2012
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Greetings from Notre Dame Stadium, where it is surprisingly not so cold as both teams warm up.

George Atkinson III, for those wondering, is on the field and looks ready to go, one week after not making the trip to Norman, Okla., because of the flu. John Goodman (back) is on the field warming up as well after missing the majority of the past three weeks.

Safety Matthias Farley, according to NBC Sports' Alex Flanagan, is wearing a cast on his right hand after injuring it last week against the Sooners. Brian Kelly said earlier this week that Farley will not be limited.

As for today's game, I'm interested to see how Everett Golson fares at home. He — and, frankly, the rest of the team — has not been particularly great in this building all season, and a quick start en route to an easy win could help the Irish's case from the eyeball test.

Speaking of eyeballs, it will be a lot easier to identify Pitt players today, as they have names on their jerseys. Coach Paul Chryst said they would get them if they beat Temple last week, and a 47-17 win will ease whatever confusion there may have been when looking for players on the field today.

Ray Graham, Devin Street and Lafayette Pitts, who were charged late this week with assault and conspiracy, are on the field warming up as well after making the trip.

I'll be tweeting the action throughout the day, so be sure to follow along. We'll have postgame coverage, along with any in-game developments, up here on the blog as well, so be sure to check back as the Irish look to go to 9-0.

George Atkinson III out vs. Sooners

October, 27, 2012
Fifth-ranked Notre Dame will go into its biggest game of the season without one of its top playmakers, as George Atkinson III did not make the trip to Norman, Okla., for Saturday night's contest against No. 8 Oklahoma.

Atkinson stayed back at school because of flu-like symptoms, a source told

To read the full story, click here.
The moment of truth is finally here. Do the 7-0 Irish keep it going in Norman, Okla.?

When Notre Dame has the ball: Establish the run early. The Irish have moved the ball successfully against a pair of very good run defenses in Stanford and BYU the past two weeks, and they will have their hands full again Saturday. They need to mix and match their three backs, get home run threat George Atkinson III on the field more and have Everett Golson at least show that he's a threat to run when things break down. Brian Kelly is not a time-of-possession guy, but that formula can prove beneficial if things open up early for the Irish. Protecting the ball is priority No. 1.

When Oklahoma has the ball: Get after Landry Jones early and often. The quarterback has been phenomenal the past three weeks, but he has yet to win over the entire Sooners fan base in large part because of his penchant for untimely mistakes, which already cost Oklahoma earlier this year against Kansas State. Notre Dame needs to limit chunk plays and control the line of scrimmage, giving its young defensive backs a chance against the most talented group of skill players it has faced to this point.

Intangible: Notre Dame can't look ahead, but I can. With a 7-0 start and games left against Pitt, BC and Wake, this is, at minimum, a BCS-bowl season for the Irish. They are huge underdogs despite being the No. 5 team in the country. If ever there were an underrated good Irish team, this may be it. The pressure is all on Oklahoma to avoid a second home loss and stay in the national title mix. Notre Dame has a path to 11-0 going into the finale at USC if it can escape Owen Field victorious, and there's something to be said for the looseness of the team going into another big game. Big 12 defenses don't come close to Notre Dame's, either.

Prediction: Oklahoma 20, Notre Dame 13. The more I study this, the more I think the Irish have a very good chance to win, but I just don't have it in me yet to pull the trigger and pick the upset over a Sooners team that's been on a roll lately.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- At least these guys get along on the field.

Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick can't cramp each other's styles when splitting carries in Notre Dame's backfield, so their four-person apartment has become the setting of never-ending bickering between the two.

The manifestation of their hilariously odd relationship was evident Wednesday in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, with the two sitting a row apart from each other while fielding questions about how the talented backs stay content with one football to go around on Saturdays.

Turns out the gridiron is a safe haven for the duo.

"Theo is my roommate, so I see him whether I want to see him or not," said Wood, who rushed for 1,102 yards last season. "Me and him are like brothers. Just our personalities are so much alike. We all play around with each other and make jokes with each other and pull pranks on each other and stuff like that."

[+] EnlargeTheo Riddick, Cierre Wood
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesRBs Theo Riddick (6) and Cierre Wood (20) celebrate the victory over Stanford with fellow students.
Such as?

"We like to punch each other a little bit, but it's all out of love," Riddick cracked.

Riddick's complicated marriage with the running-back position over three seasons gave way to a hybrid back/slot role this season, and Wood's two-game suspension to start the campaign has allowed Riddick to tally team-highs of 80 carries, 308 rushing yards and 20 catches, with 170 receiving yards.

Despite Wood's 5.9-yards-per-carry average to Riddick's 3.9, coach Brian Kelly doesn't think the numbers tell the story of the two.

"We are looking at circumstances in the game, play call, matching of personnel versus the defensive personnel that's in the game," Kelly said. "A lot of those things are not seen within the statistical numbers. So we think they are all very good backs. I think if there's any comment that needs to be made on the three running backs is we still have to continue to get more touches for George Atkinson."

Yes, then there is Atkinson, who has displayed the most speed on the team in breaking off 55- and 56-yard touchdown runs on two of his 32 carries this season.

"Oh, definitely I'm the little one," the sophomore quipped. "So I'm always getting picked on from both of them. It's all fun, and I enjoy every moment I share with those guys."

Atkinson spends plenty of time at the upperclassmen's place, which also houses nose guard Tyler Stockton and non-football-playing friend Kevin.

"Kevin, uh … Hey, Theo, what's Kevin's last name?" Wood turned and asked one of his roommates when pressed for another's last name.

"Saunders," Riddick said, breaking off an answer to another question.

"Yeah, Sanders. It's Kevin Sanders. I see you dog," Wood affirmed.

Wood and Stockton had originally decided to live together and needed two more roommates. Wood then invited Sanders, a friend he met in a freshman-year class who, like Wood, is a neat freak.

As for the fourth?

"Theo just jumped in the mix: 'Hey, I want to be in there, too,' " Wood said. "That's how it happened. It became the best roommate corps ever."

The best thing since sliced bread, Wood later added while wearing the sweatpants of Riddick, who himself was decked out in the No. 92 sweatpants of Stockton. Stray shoes are fair game, too, though the mess usually comes in the basement inhabited by Riddick and Stockton, referred to internally as the cave.

Seemingly improbably, the senior running backs are much more comfortable sharing the leather on game days for the No. 5 Irish.

"We're just so close as friends, that that would never be a problem," Wood said of Riddick. "We've had times when we're arguing and stuff like that. But when we're on the field, we know what we have to do, what has to get done. That has never been a problem and never will be a problem."

Notre Dame helmet stickers

October, 7, 2012
Notre Dame improved to 5-0 with a 41-3 rout of Miami. Who stood out the most?

Everett Golson, QB: When Notre Dame announced that Golson would not start because of a violation of team rules, few were thinking that the redshirt freshman would enter and have his best career game. But that's what he did, completing 17 of 22 passes for 186 yards and rushing it for 51 yards on six carries.

George Atkinson III: This sophomore had a career day as well, running for 123 yards on 10 carries, and he had a 55-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter that essentially illustrated the difference between these two teams on a one-sided Saturday night.

Cierre Wood: Nice to see you again here, Cierre. The Irish's leading rusher from a year ago notched his first 100-yard game of the season, finishing with 118 yards and two scores on 18 carries. Wood had three 100-yard contests last season.

Offensive line: This group got the game ball from Brian Kelly after a season-opening win in which they paved the way for 293 rushing yards. What do they get for Saturday, when they powered the Irish to their best rushing game of the last 12 years, a 376-yard output?

Manti Te'o: Oh, yeah, the defense held its opponent to a third straight game without a touchdown. Te'o, again, was the biggest reason for that, recording a game-high 10 tackles and breaking up a pass.

CHICAGO -- Allow Cierre Wood to explain the difference between the defense that Notre Dame faced early on Saturday night and the one he faced in the second half.

"They were all upbeat and jumping and all that stuff in the beginning," Wood said of Miami, which held the Irish to 28 rushing yards in the first quarter.

And then?

"But when you smack a team so many times in the mouth, eventually they're going to want to stop playing, and that's what happened today."

This city's official marathon does not start until 7:30 local time Sunday morning, but Notre Dame got a running head start mid-way through its convincing 41-3 win over the Hurricanes at Soldier Field, a contest in which the Irish rushed for 376 yards.

A 10-point halftime lead gave way to a 31-point advantage to start the fourth quarter, and the Irish have their ground game to thank for that. Notre Dame rushed the ball on 19 of its 21 plays in the third quarter, amassing 197 yards on the ground. Exactly 100 of those yards belonged to Wood, who eclipsed the century mark for the first time this season and for the fourth time in his career.

The returning 1,100-yard back finished the day with 118 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, and he was not even the Irish's leading rusher.

That title belonged to George Atkinson III, whose 55-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter highlighted his 123-yard day and gave the Irish two single-game 100-yard rushers for the first time in 10 years. Theo Riddick had five carries for 21 yards but sat much of the second half with a bruised elbow.

"We feed off big runs, physical runs, things of that nature," Atkinson said. "It makes us want to one-up each other."

The evening started with more quarterback drama, as Notre Dame announced that Tommy Rees would be starting in place of Everett Golson, who violated a team rule.

Rees and the Irish appeared to go three-and-out on their first drive, but a roughing-the-punter penalty gave them a re-do, and Golson was the man afterward. He, too, got in on the ground fun, breaking off several big runs that illustrated why, despite several rookie mistakes, he is the long-term answer for the Irish under center.

Coming off what coach Brian Kelly called his best week of practice, Golson rushed for 51 yards on six carries, and he completed 17 of 22 passes for 186 yards, shortly after being late for a team meeting that cost him the chance to take the game's first snap.

"I want our guys to be accountable," Kelly said. "He was accountable. He knew that he's got to do a better job of communicating. Look, he was meeting with a professor and he lost track of time, and he knows he's got to communicate with us and do a better job of that. But he took full responsibility for it, accountability for it; I thought he came in and played very well. I was proud of him today."

Said Golson: "I didn't handle it in the way I should have."

Kelly is not a big time-of-possession guy, but even he took pleasure in his team's domination of that category, with the Irish holding the ball for 39:08. Their 34 first downs were two shy of a team record.

"College GameDay" will be on the scene in South Bend next Saturday when the Irish look to improve to 6-0 against Stanford, but no one in the Irish locker room was ready to party just yet.

Yes, this is an offense that desperately needed to prove it can make plays. By not turning the ball over and netting 587 total yards against the porous Miami defense, it did jsut that, but the players are not getting ahead of themselves just yet.

"We've still got a lot of work to do," Wood said. "We had a great game today, but we're nowhere near where we want to be. We're nowhere near how good we can be. So people looking at us now, that's not really anything yet because we've still got a lot of work to do."
CHICAGO -- No. 9 Notre Dame handled Miami 41-3 on Saturday night at Soldier Field. Here is a quick look at how the Irish won.

It was over when: Notre Dame racked up 197 yards rushing and 21 points in a decisive third quarter to put the game out of reach. The Irish led 13-3 at halftime, but Miami never had a chance to get into the game in the third quarter because the Irish were so dominant on the ground. On their three scoring drives in the quarter, Notre Dame attempted a total of two passes. One of those drives went 12 plays -- and all 12 were runs.

Gameball goes to: George Atkinson III and Cierre Wood. As the Irish surpassed the 300-yard rushing mark in the game, both Atkinson and Wood went over 100 yards. It was the first time Notre Dame had two 100 yard rushers in the same game since 2002. Notre Dame ended up with season highs in first downs (34) and rushing yards (379).

Stat of the game: Notre Dame's 379-yard rushing total. The Irish had their way on the ground in this game, impressively chewing up chunks of yards while also breaking one tackle after another. This was a new low point for the Miami defense, which has played poorly all season. Miami has allowed five of its six opponents to run for more than 200 yards this season. The previous season high came on the road at Kansas State, when the Wildcats racked up 288 total rushing yards.

Notre Dame mailblog

September, 14, 2012
Lots of good questions this week. Let's get right to it.

Harry from Dalton, Ga., writes: Hey Matt. I'm wondering where this puts Hendrix in as far as getting playing time. It appears he is number 3 now and might not get much playing time with Rees having the more experience.

Matt Fortuna: Harry, [Andrew] Hendrix is certainly caught in a bit of a rough situation. He's not good enough to supplant [Everett] Golson as the starter, and he doesn't have the intangibles and experience that [Tommy] Rees has. But I think he still has assets Notre Dame likes. Brian Kelly has not named either the No. 2 quarterback. I'd expect Hendrix to see mostly late-game action in contests that are already decided, much like the Navy opener. Whether that will be enough to help his development -- or enough to surpass either quarterback in their respective roles -- remains to be seen.

Evan Sharp from South Lyon, Mich., writes: Hey Matt. With all of the recent injuries to the defense especially how do you think that will affect an already questionable defense against RB Bell and an improving QB Maxwell next week? Also what is YOUR input on who will get more reps in East Lansing between Golson vs. Hendrix, Rees and Riddick vs. Atkinson and a returning Wood? Thanks, Evan

Matt Fortuna: Evan, I don't think any of the injuries were serious enough to limit any of the defensive players this week. The only player who won't be able to go is kicker Nick Tausch, who hurt his groin late last week. Golson will start, and the plan is for him to finish. But if he has trouble late like he did last week and the outcome is still up in the air, it will be very interesting to see if Kelly makes the switch to Rees. Theo Riddick will start, and though Cierre Wood and George Atkinson are listed as the co-No. 2 running backs this week, I'd expect Wood to see more carries.

Mike Lozano from Orlando, Fla., writes: Hi Matt, I'm not sure how to feel about the recent move by ND to affiliate with the ACC. While I'm happy ND will get more exposure to recruits in the southeast & access to the Orange/other bowl games, the 5 game scheduling requirement against ACC teams makes me feel uneasy. Your thoughts?

Matt Fortuna: Mike, it shouldn't. Notre Dame plays four ACC games this season already, if you include Pittsburgh. It played four last season, if you include Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. This move is a home run for the Irish, and it gives them plenty of bowl access, which has been arguably the biggest issue the program has faced in recent years.

Jason from Fishers, Ind., writes: I am just curious where the idea that the Purdue rivalry doesn't have the same history as the others in the Big Ten comes from. ND has played something like 84 games against the Boilers all time, which I believe puts it second on the number of times played list behind Navy. I have been having a discussion with my buddies about this and they are sort of in your camp, believing that the Purdue rivalry will be sacrificed with the new scheduling that takes place. I argue that this rivalry is more important to keep going than all others aside from Navy and USC. The Michigan rivalry has been on again, off again and Stanford is not a true rivalry, just an excuse to get out west. I am of the belief that now, more than previously, the Purdue game matters most because it continues to help recruiting and relevance to the midwest. My thought is that the west coast connection is already fulfilled by USC and always has been. The ACC games give you the southeast on up the east coast. A neutral site game can give you the east and even Texas/Oklahoma. If you get rid of all of the B1G rivalries, you basically remove all annual Midwest games that aren't played at home. Keeping Purdue is very important because it keeps an in-state rival to help bolster area recruiting. I know that ND recruits itself many times, but many kids that want to play in the ACC or out west would be better served by just going somewhere in the conference. To truly continue to be "National", ND should play Nationally, not just out west and down south, when away from Notre Dame Stadium. What are your thoughts on this idea? I can't find many that agree with my stance, but I truly see the Purdue rivalry as one very rich in history and necessary for the future. It gets the nod over MSU because of the fact that it is in-state, which holds its own importance.

Matt Fortuna: Jason, I think there will be some kind of scheduling cycle with all of the Big Ten rivalries that Notre Dame has, so I'm not sure the Boilermakers would be just wiped off the schedule for good. As for recruiting? I really don't think playing two hours down the road does much for the Irish. They're pretty well-known in the Midwest regardless. None of those Big Ten rivalries, in Notre Dame's eyes, are as important as the tradition that a Navy game has every year, or as valuable as getting West every year at USC and/or Stanford.