- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- George Atkinson III entered the auditorium of the Notre Dame football complex wearing a black-ribbed tank top, searching for a comfortable seat to do interviews. He went up one row, then another, and then another, taking his sweet time for proper position while juking a horde of reporters.
No, it was not quite his 80-yard touchdown dash from Saturday's loss to Oklahoma. The attention was for that run, though, and for several others he had during a career-best 148-yard outing.
"I guess you could see I was running with my pad-level lower, trying to get the extra yards," Atkinson said. "That's what [offensive coordinator Chuck] Martin has been harping on, and that just means for all the backs to try and get more when the line's blocking for you."
Atkinson and the ground game were the silver lining from an otherwise forgettable loss to the Sooners, as they tallied a season-best 220 rushing yards. Notre Dame increased its rushing average from 114.3 yards per game to 135.4, and the Irish looked to have finally gained traction in an area that may serve them well this weekend in Arlington, Texas.
Arizona State is just 92nd nationally against the run, surrendering 192.3 rushing yards per outing and giving up 5.16 yards per carry.
Head coach Brian Kelly described Atkinson's breakthrough as more of a conscious choice after a film session that showed the junior just how much was left on the table during certain plays.
"'Isn't this a tackle you should be running through? Shouldn't you be getting through this tackle? How did you get tackled here?’" Kelly said. "So it got to the point where we had to physically sit him down and show him clip after clip after clip.
"'These are tackles that you must run through. They can't tackle you. You're 220 pounds.' And I think that constant coaching and teaching and showing, he then convinced himself that, well, what Coach is actually saying, I think I believe that now, and then he believed it and then he did it."
The performance was more befitting of a guy who entered the season atop the five-man running back depth chart, which initially featured the other four backs sharing the No. 2 role.
Little clarity had been established in the backfield throughout the season's first four games. Cam McDaniel carved out a niche as the reliable end-of-game back, with Notre Dame turning to the junior to help milk the clock late in close wins over Purdue and Michigan State. His 48 carries are 10 more than the other backs.
Notre Dame broke the 100-yard mark only in its opener against Temple. But after responding to Kelly sticking with the ground game this past weekend despite an early 14-0 deficit, the running backs know they must continue to reward that trust moving forward.
"You create that type of expectation every week, regardless of who you're playing or whatever," Atkinson said. "It's a big game and it's in the past now. There's nothing I can do about it. It doesn't mean anything if I don't come out next week and try to do the same or do better."
16dPaula Lavigne and Nicole Noren