NOTRE DAME, IN (UHND.com) – The Notre Dame offensive line has been the most maligned unit on the Irish’s disappointing now 0-4 squad this year, but against Michigan State they finally took a step forward instead of backward. The Irish line is still a work in progress, but unlike a week ago, Saturday’s performance is something to build on for head coach Charlie Weis and offensive line coach John Latina.
“Well, there’s good news and the bad news, okay,” Weis said Saturday night when addressing the play of his offensive line against Michigan State. “The good news is that we ran the ball more effectively. That’s not just the runners. Obviously the offensive line is involved in that mix as are the tight ends and the fullbacks, okay.”
And the Irish did do a fairly effective job running the ball. Take away the 32 yards that the Irish lost on sacks and the line paved the way for 149 yards on the ground. Hardly stellar numbers, but considering Notre Dame running backs combined for just 151 yards through three games heading into this week, it’s certainly something to build off of.
The Notre Dame offensive linemen cut down on the costly penalties that stalled drives, put the offense in disadvantageous down and distances, and voided big plays. As a team the Irish had just four penalties in the game with just one, a holding call on Sam Young on the last drive of the game, coming from the offensive line.
In previous weeks the line had a propensity for false starts on first downs – a problem that was inevitable with three new starters playing their first road games in front of 100,000+ fans in consecutive weeks.
With the good, however, came the bad. “The bad news is I still think we had some problems, some fundamental problems in blitz pickup, which discouraged me because they weren’t outnumbered situations,” said Weis.
Opponents getting to Notre Dame quarterbacks with basic four man fronts has been a problem all season long, and it continued to be a problem Saturday. “There were a couple of times where you have enough guys to block you, and just we need to get some things fixed if we’re going to be able to throw the ball down the field,” Weis would go on to explain.
Coming into this weekend, the Irish offensive line was not doing much right. The Notre Dame offense couldn’t run it and they couldn’t pass it because the line was not able to protect the quarterback or create any sort of room for the Irish running backs. Coming out of this weekend, however, the Irish appear to be finding a running game because the offensive line was able to get physical off the snap and create holes for the backs to run through.
“We were pretty good at the point of attack with the straight on physical stuff,” Weis told the media on Sunday during his final assessment of the Michigan State game. Speaking specifically about sophomore guard Matt Carufel who got his first career start Saturday, Weis would say, “When we were just lining up smacking people in the mouth, I thought he held up fine.”
The next step for this offensive line will be to figure out a way to keep the quarterbacks standing up long enough to find a receiver without needing to keep extra tight ends and running backs in for protection. “Where we had a little bit more problem is with movement,” said Weis Sunday afternoon. “ I know you’ll go back and watch it the way I do, but you’ll see movement creating some more problems than just lining up.”
The movement Weis is talking about are all those occurances where we’ve seen opposing defenders rsih unabated to Clausen and Sharpley. Plays like a 3rd and 5 near mid field in the third quarter when Jonal Saint Dic rushed Clausen untouched and swatted away a quick pass to George West which looked as though it had a chance to move the chains.
Without improving in this area, the Irish offense will continue to look much as it did Saturday – at times respectable and at other times maddeningly frustrating. If the line can improve in its pass protections and blitz pickups the Irish will be able to release the tight ends and running backs who are currently needed for pass protection more often than not. It would also allow Weis to utilize more multiple wide receiver sets so that Clausen has more than just two or three potential targets on third and long.
Another area in which the line is still in need of major improvements is in the screen game. There have been multiple occasions this year when it’s looked as though the Irish had a screen set up perfectly, only to have an opposing defender blow right past the Irish blockers to squash the play for minimal games.
On Notre Dame’s final drive of the first half against Michigan State, it looked as though Armando Allen had a nice wall of defenders in front of him when Jimmy Clausen hit him on screen on 2nd and 11 from the MSU 19 yard line only to have not one, but two Spartan defenders blow up the play and push him out of bounds after a gain of only five yards. The same thing happened two weeks ago against Michigan in Ann Arbor. Allen got the ball from Clausen with a wall of blockers only to have a Wolverine defender knife through the Notre Dame blockers to shut down the play.
This line is still a major work in progress, but for the first time this year we saw real, tangible progress be made that was visible in the stat sheet and not just in plays that were almost made. As a unit, the line played OK for the first time this year. They didn’t play great. They didn’t play terrible. They made some plays and missed out on others because of missed assignments and other mental errors. They cut down on the penalties and other stupid mistakes which set this offense back.
There is still a lot of work to be done by Weis and Latina here, but at least for one week, the offensive line took a step forward instead of a step backwards.