Without the bulldozer size to bowl over defenses or even the neatly packaged collegiate pedigree of being a four-year starter at tailback, Theo Riddick has somehow captured the essence of this Notre Dame team that is another 60 workmanlike minutes from a national title.
Riddick is a whatever-it-takes player on a whatever-it-takes team, and the 5-11, 200-pound senior knows it will take one more incredible effort Monday night at Sun Life Stadium against heavily favored Alabama to officially stamp Notre Dame’s return to glory.
“We rise to the occasion. You can see that in big games,” Riddick said Friday morning in the kind of calm, steady tone that, again, characterizes the often-plodding but always in control team he plays for. “But we still have one more game.”
It will be Riddick’s final one at Notre Dame to cap a whirlwind career that he began at running back — his natural position — as a freshman before switching to wide receiver during his sophomore and junior seasons. But there was one more career curveball that put Riddick right back in his rightful place for a senior season that has taken him to the brink of a championship. The change actually happened late last season after running back Jonas Gray was injured, when his coaches asked Riddick to return to his backfield safe haven.
“I feel like I’m at ease [now]. Everything slows down tremendously,” said Riddick, who rushed for 4,042 yards and 52 touchdowns during a spectacular career at Immaculata High in New Jersey.
Riddick responded to his one final collegiate position switch with a combustible fury, rushing for a team-leading 880 yards this season, ripping off 4.9 yards per carry with five touchdowns and gaining a team-high 1,244 all-purpose yards. But he didn’t leave receiver behind either, finding holes in defenses from the slot position for 35 catches, which ranks third on the Irish. He is the deadliest of dual threats, and the man assigned to limit him Monday is well aware.
Versatility a plus
“I didn’t think a former receiver would run with so much power, but he runs with power,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “[He has] one-step quickness. Explosive. Great receiver. Good stiff-arm.”
In other words, Riddick does everything well enough to be a certifiable weapon without overwhelming you with one particular thing. He can sneak up on you, just as the Irish have snuck up on everyone to arrive here.
“[Coach Brian Kelly] has managed us,” Riddick said. “He knows the formula. He believes in everyone. He always believes anyone can make a big play. That’s why we’re here.”
Their layoff has been endless, the Irish clinching their spot in the grandest of games on Nov. 24 with a victory at Southern California that Riddick helped author with a career-high 146 yards and the team’s only touchdown. It was a 22-13 win that had all the grind-it-out ingredients of a 2012 Notre Dame victory, including five field goals and a heroic goal-line stand to seal the game.
“Coach Kelly called my number,” Riddick said of that night, “and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity I had.”
And if this Notre Dame team is anything, it is opportunistic. The Irish just win, thanks to selfless players such as Riddick, who converted a team-high 49 first downs on the ground and even moved the chains 15 times through the air.
“He has been unbelievable, especially the past three or four games of the season,” senior left tackle Zack Martin said. “It’s fun to block for him.”
Riddick indeed got stronger as the plot thickened during the Irish’s magical regular season. He rushed for at least 74 yards in five of the last six games, capped by that memorable Thanksgiving weekend night in Los Angeles, and Riddick had a combined 14 catches in the season’s final four games, filling the stat sheet in every way he could for offensive coordinator Chuck Martin’s group of grinders.
“Pound for pound as good a football player as they make,” Chuck Martin said of Riddick.
Said Riddick: “We have so many guys who are playmakers.”
And Martin has made them believe in themselves, through a season full of dramatic wins.
“He can criticize you and then lift you up,” Riddick said.
The man who once again runs first and catches passes second made his initial impact at Notre Dame on special teams, breaking the Irish single-season record with 849 kickoff return yards as a freshman. Three long and winding years later, he forms one-third of a dynamic Irish backfield brigade along with senior Cierre Wood, his “best friend since Day 1,” and sophomore George Atkinson III, who Riddick calls “NASCAR fast.”
The trio will somehow try to crack a powerful Alabama front four that Riddick couldn’t stop raving about. He knows how vital Everett Golson’s play-action passing will be, and in order for it to work even a little, the running game must be there Monday.
“You can’t become one-dimensional against this team because they can light us up in a heartbeat,” Riddick said.
Of course, nobody has done that yet to a stout Notre Dame defense that is No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense. And it’s the job of everyone among the underdog Irish to make sure, just one more time, that it doesn’t happen.
“We’re going to run our offense. We’re not going to do a lot of different things,” Riddick said. “We’re [aware of] the hype. But our approach isn’t going to change.”
Riddick, who won this season’s team Count on Me Award, has one more game to give whatever is needed, as he has for four years now. That return to ultimate glory is all that’s at stake.
“We want to leave here with that ring and that crystal ball,” he said. “We think this is our chance and our time.”