7:48 PM EST, December 3, 2012
SOUTH BEND -- There has to be a reason -- tangible or intangible -- why Theo Riddick played like he did for Notre Dame this season.
Maybe it was the internal sense of urgency a football player finds in his senior year.
Maybe it was physical maturity.
Maybe it was emotional maturity.
Maybe it was him finally getting a thorough understanding of expectations.
Maybe it was the coaching staff finally getting a thorough understanding of him.
Maybe it was a total commitment to a goal that had never been made before.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound running back didn't even vaguely resemble the Theo Riddick who struggled to find his niche - whether it was in the backfield or as a receiver - in his first three years in the Irish program.
This guy ran with a purpose. On 174 carries, Riddick had just 24 negative yards. Riddick is a missile when he approaches the point of contact. A play that's stuffed can go for five yards in a hurry.
That's a big difference for the Irish offense. That sort of production - 860 rushing yards and five TDs - made a profound impact on this season. Add in 32 pass receptions for 306 yards and a touchdown, and the hybrid running back/slot receiver has finally found his niche.
"We wanted to bring a more physical presence to our football team," Riddick said. "I think I exemplified that, along with others. What can I say? Things just worked out well this year. I really don't have the answer (why)."
It might be too simple to suggest that just having more opportunities led to the success. Opportunities came because of the production. A chicken and the egg scenario.
"I guess you could say I was in the backfield more; I got more touches," said Riddick, who had played mostly receiver during his sophomore and junior years. "We have a great offensive coordinator (Chuck Martin) and offensive line. Everything worked out well this year."
It's easy to compare Riddick to what running back Jonas Gray accomplished last year. Gray was another guy who floundered through his first three seasons, then made his mark (791 rushing yards, 12 TDs) as a senior.
That final push, despite a knee injury late in the season, earned Gray an NFL roster spot this season. Odds are it could do the same for Riddick.
That's down the road, though. All that's on his mind now is turning that underdog role into a national championship.
"We've been going through (being an underdog) this whole season, in terms of gaining respect," Riddick said. "You can't get all tied up into that. All we can do is control what we can control and do the best we can in this national championship game."
That control starts with more than a month's worth of study and preparation to know the Crimson Tide inside and out.
"This will help us in knowing Alabama," Riddick said of the next 30 days or so. "They're the defending champs. You want to beat the best. We have that chance."
Besides production, limiting mistakes is another key for Irish success. Last year, Notre Dame lost 12 fumbles. This year, they've yielded seven. On his 174 carries, Riddick has lost just one fumble - against Boston College.
"With that great of a team (as Alabama), or any team, actually, you turn the ball over and you lessen your chances to win," Riddick said.
At this point, with this challenge, there's no room to lessen the chances.
Give the ball to Riddick.
No maybes about it.
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