Irish running with edge through five weeks

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Jonas Gray was locked in a battle with Purdue's Will Lucas at the 2-yard-line Saturday when Lucas suddenly gave out, giving Gray the first-quarter touchdown.

At least it seemed to Gray that was how he escaped his defender. Then, the running back's brief end-zone celebration was interrupted by center Braxston Cave.

"He knocked the guy off of me actually and I didn't even realize it until I watched the film," Gray said of Cave. "And he said something to me in the end zone about it and I didn't know what he was talking about.

"Once I watched the film, he knocked that guy off of me and that's a guy, just like the rest of the guys, they're just happy to be physical. They're just happy to go out there and open up holes for us."

Perhaps Cave's clobbering block of Lucas had the Notre Dame offensive line so eager to get back to the line of scrimmage every play Saturday night. The Fighting Irish's 287 rushing yards may have had something to do with that as well.

Regardless, the camaraderie of the rushing attack has been at a high through five games this season, with Notre Dame averaging more than 179 yards per game on the ground.

"It's good, it's a confident group right now," offensive line coach and running game coordinator Ed Warinner said. "They're playing hard. They've been together, they like each other, we have good chemistry and so they know that if they do their job good things happen.

"So those guys are getting some nice creases and [it's] just kind of infectious. It just gets going. And moving the ball and being physical is why they play football. That part of it is fun for them and they're enjoying it."

Fun is exactly how Gray described going back to the sideline after each possession Saturday. Excluding a knee to end the first half, only one of the Irish's first nine possessions at Purdue ended with a punt.

Gray finished with 94 yards on 15 carries. Cierre Wood rushed for 191 yards on 20 carries.

"Whenever we go to the sideline during a media timeout or something like that, we were just communicating with each other, telling each other what we saw, and they were like, 'Run behind me. Do this. Do that,'" Gray recalled. "And when you get that from your offensive line, it's refreshing. When they wanna run it and they wanna continue to be physical up front, it was just, they were putting on a lot of positive energy and just being physical up front."

Still, Gray saw plenty of room for improvement, namely in not leaving any more yards out on the field. The senior also hopes to hold up his and Wood's preseason promise of not allowing a sack all season.

The latter area is something running backs coach Tim Hinton believes will go largely unnoticed until a running back actually does miss a crucial block.

Avoiding that is one big challenge for a rushing attack that thus far has exceeded everyone's expectations but its own. Another is simply maintaining the edge that has helped the Irish set the bar so high to begin with.

"The biggest thing right now is to do it every week and have that consistency to run physical, and there will be games where they may not have the highs, but we can't ever have the real lows," Hinton said. "We gotta have a consistent approach to our practice, a consistent approach to how we go about our day and then every game we have to bring a physical mentality and a drive and a relentlessness. We're mad if we got tackled; even if it was a 20-yard gain, we're mad we didn't get 21.

"And I keep trying to instill that that every play: fall forward and try to get one more, try to get two more. And you get that mentality that, 'Listen, I got a little more in me. I got a little more in me,' and that's what we're working for every day. We gotta continue to bring that consistently and I'm telling them every day. And I had a long talk with them [Tuesday]: 'You gotta be able to manage success, because you get a lot of media at Notre Dame and you better manage success.'"