MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Arguably the biggest key to Notre Dame's offensive success Monday in the BCS Championship is to establish the run early, which would help open up the passing game for Everett Golson later on. For all of his strides in the last few months, Notre Dame isn't likely to beat Alabama on the arm of Golson; instead it'll be thanks to the legs of Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III.
Notre Dame's backfield dynamic has changed plenty during the 2012 season, when it began with Riddick and Atkinson plowing through Navy in Dublin. Wood's return after a two-game suspension brought the team's leading rusher from 2011 back into the fold, but he hasn't got the volume of carries he'd like this season. And Atkinson has slowly been phased out of Notre Dame's playbook after a breakout game against Miami.
The Irish will enter the BCS Championship with Riddick as the team's feature back. He's carried the ball at least 15 times in five of Notre Dame's last six games, with the exception being in a 38-0 blowout over Wake Forest.
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"It seemed like he should've never played receiver before with the way he runs the football," Alabama defensive end Damion Square observed. "He looked like he was a born running back with his one-step quickness and the way that he hits the hole with the power that he has."
Riddick is a natural running back, although a stacked depth chart shifted him to wide receiver in 2010 and 2011 before returning to the backfield. But he's eclipsed Wood in the eyes of Notre Dame's coaches, which has left Wood with an average of just 11 carries per game this season.
"It's been difficult, but the thing I tried to do when I start getting carries like that is make plays sooner and faster," Wood said of his decreased role. "Toward midway throughout the season, that's what I started doing. I'll only have seven carries or 100-something yards or something like that. I just try to make big runs as soon as I can. It was just a new challenge for me, I embraced it and welcomed it with open arms."
That strategy led to a haymaker run against Oklahoma, with Wood racing 62 yards up the middle for a first-quarter touchdown that silenced the largest crowd in Oklahoma Memorial Stadium history. It's a play Square said he's watched over and over again in an attempt to diagnose what the Sooners did wrong, and if Alabama is susceptible to the same fate.
"That takes the air out of you, when a guy splits your defense and runs for a touchdown like that coming out of the backfield, no doubt about it," Square said.
While Wood has seen some success with that mindset, Atkinson hasn't. For all his explosiveness and blazing speed, Atkinson's best game since Oct. 6 against Miami was a seven-carry, 34-yard effort in a low-pressure situation against Wake Forest. Perhaps the five-week layoff did him some good, but the sophomore appears to be a work in progress at this point.
"We just know we gotta take advantage of each carry," Atkinson said, "and what we do with those carries is going to affect how many times we're going to get it."
Atkinson's role will likely increase in 2013, with Riddick's tenure ending Monday night and Wood considering the NFL. Wood said he'll make a final decision on whether to stay or go after Monday's National Championship, but reading between the lines, he didn't sound like someone who planned on sticking around for 2013.
"If I feel the time is right or if I feel that's what I want to do, then the decision will be made," Wood added.
Still, Wood's focus is on Alabama, and what he can do to help Notre Dame -- and, also, himself -- on college football's biggest stage. If he and Notre Dame's running backs can make Alabama fear them on Monday, Notre Dame's offense very well could be in good shape.
That's easier said than done, though.
"They don't get moved," Riddick said of Alabama's defensive line. "That's a huge problem if you can't move the front four and create holes.
"You just cannot become one-dimensional against this team."