Running game solves many of Notre Dame's problems

Updated: October 12, 2003, 5:34 PM ET

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Coach Tyrone Willingham was right. A good running game did solve a lot of Notre Dame's problems -- at least for one game.

The Irish ran for 352 yards -- just 13 yards fewer than they had in the first four games combined -- and just about everything else fell into place as Willingham predicted it would in a 20-14 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.

The defense was well rested, playing only 23:14, and held the Panthers to 175 yards total offense. Special teams came up with some big plays. The beleaguered offensive line, criticized all season, showed signs of improvement, finally opening some holes.

And whether there were holes or not, tailback Julius Jones had his best day ever as he ran around tacklers and through tackles. Actually, he had the best day ever for an Irish back, running for a school-record 262 yards on 24 carries, including touchdown runs of 25 and 49 yards.

"We knew that one of the areas that we had been weakest at was running the football, so it was a focus of ours to see if we could improve that," Willingham said.

The Irish (2-3) entered the game averaging just 90.3 yards a game, the nation's 10th worst rushing offense. After rushing for 352 yards -- the most for Notre Dame since the Irish had 380 yards rushing against Boston College three years ago -- the Irish are averaging 143 yards a game, 67th in the nation.

More importantly, the victory over Pitt (3-2) gave the Irish offense a shot of confidence going into Saturday's home game against No. 5 Southern California.

"It was a great feeling to get the win and get things on track," Jones said. "Things opened up for us as a whole team. We had to step up to the plate."

The Irish, who had a week off before the game, made changes on the right side of the line. Dan Stevenson, who started the first four games at right tackle, moved to right guard, the position he was recruited to play. Ryan Harris, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound freshman, saw his first action, starting at right tackle.

"I give the line all the credit," said Jones, who ran for 6 yards on seven carries in the previous game against Purdue. "They gave me some room to run and it was a great game for us."

The most impressive drive might have been Notre Dame's ability to run out the final 9:14 of the game, denying Pitt a chance for the come-from-behind victory.

"We had to make sure that we controlled the ball, because until those last seconds ticked off, everything was still very much in doubt," Willingham said. "That allowed our defense not to go back on the field, and you take some suspense out of the game when you do that."

It was a welcome sight for the Notre Dame defense, which held Pitt to 8 yards rushing and 167 yards passing.

"I haven't seen that in a long time," safety Glenn Earl said. "The offense just ran the ball at will without even throwing a pass for eight minutes straight. It was just domination."

About the only disappointment for the Irish was the passing game. Freshman Brady Quinn, making just his second start, was 5-of-17 passing for 33 yards with one interception. Willingham said he was still pleased with Quinn's play.

"The measuring stick that I have for our quarterback is simply to win, and Brady did that," Willingham said. "He made throws when we needed big throws. He led our football team with a calm and a presence that we expect from our quarterback."

Willingham said the performance gives the Irish hope for the rest of the season.

"There were tough times, and there still are some tough times. We're not where we want to be yet," he said. "But I like our coaching, I like our attitude and I like the work that we've been giving."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index