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Running game behind Wood, balance keys for Irish

Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood (20) leaps over a tackle attempt by Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen (21) in the second half of an NCAA football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Notre Dame won 38-10. Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood (20) leaps over a tackle attempt by Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen (21) in the second half of an NCAA football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Notre Dame won 38-10. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
By Rick Gano
AP Sports Writer / October 4, 2011

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SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Cierre Wood is quick, elusive and he has a takeoff gear, giving Notre Dame the breakaway threat it needed to balance the spread offense and help build a three-game winning streak.

If Wood, who rushed for a career-high 191 yards in a rout of Purdue last week, needs a breather, Jonas Gray has stepped in and provided some tough running, inside and out.

"I think that probably more than anything else is what we're finding -- that both of our backs have run so effectively and have complemented everything that we're doing, that's why we have to be balanced," coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday.

"Look, if we didn't have a running back that was capable of doing some of the things, we probably would throw it a lot more."

Wood started six games a year ago after an injury to Armando Allen. He and Gray, who has bounced back after fumbling at the goal line on the first series of the opener against South Florida, have taken care of Kelly's worries.

Wood, who had a 55-yard TD run against the Boilermakers, has 618 yards on 103 carries and Gray, who broke off a 79-yard scoring scamper against Pitt the week before, has gained 338 on 40 carries.

They will be a big part of the game plan Saturday when Air Force and its versatile offense come to Notre Dame Stadium. They will keep the Falcons' defense honest, for sure, especially with teammate Michael Floyd almost unstoppable catching passes.

After 12 more receptions last week, Floyd has 47 catches for 561 yards this season.

Wood, Gray and Floyd -- throw in tight end Tyler Eifert, too -- have taken some of the pressure off sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees, who is poised and steady at times and at others still finding his way.

"He's developing that scar tissue that you need to play quarterback for me ... He's constantly being challenged to be better," Kelly said of Rees. "He's taken very well to that. I think all of our players have a great trust in him."

For Gray, it was more encouragement than anything. After his untimely fumble was returned for a long TD by South Florida to spark the Bulls' upset, Kelly asked him if he wanted to be remembered for that play or something really good. And Gray has answered. His style has also been more physical at 5-foot-10, 230 pounds.

"That was the ability to use his 605-pound squat (lift)," Kelly said. "We needed him to translate that. It's started to come to that fruition. He's a rare combination of size and speed. He's a great complement to Cierre."

Wood has continued to improve since last season, when he showed flashes, including a 34-yard TD run in the Sun Bowl.

He has become a better blocker and stronger runner. And even though the 6-foot, 215-pound Wood is obviously the featured No. 1 back, Kelly said it doesn't matter if he or Gray is in the backfield for a certain play.

"It allows those guys to roll in and out of the game and allows us to call the game and not have to worry about who's the back that's in at that time," Kelly said.

Kelly was asked if the talented Wood was the best running back he's coached. He thought about it for a while and offered what might be termed a politically correct answer at this stage of the junior's career.

"He's pretty darn good. Yeah, I mean, I've had some really good ones. Isaiah Pead was a pretty good back at Cincinnati," Kelly said.

"We always try to compare him with Isaiah. They're very good backs. They're probably two of the top backs in the country, Pead and Cierre Wood. He (Wood) doesn't have a huge resume. He's got a lot of work left, but he's a special player."

Notes: Kelly, sporting a pink tie at his news conference Tuesday, said the Irish would sport that color in a variety of fashions Saturday for breast cancer awareness. Kelly's wife, Pacqui, has twice battled breast cancer. ... Kelly said DE Ethan Johnson would have a boot on his sprained ankle removed Thursday and a determination will be made later if he can play Saturday.