Offensive Line, Not Quarterback, Key Fix For Notre Dame Football

When you’re the quarterback at Notre Dame, it all comes back to you. The Irish beat Michigan behind the arm and the legs of Brandon Wimbush, he saw his Heisman stock rise, and he was the belle of the ball. The Notre Dame offense struggled the following week against Ball State, and Wimbush was again the polarizing figure he has always been. Most of the post-game talk centered around his play and whether or not Chip Long set up a game plan that set his senior signal caller up for success. To be clear, those questions were warranted. When Brian Kelly chooses his running quarterback as his starter and then doesn’t run him, well, that doesn’t make a ton of sense.

But, taking the time to watch the game back, the five men on the offensive line were the greater concern and their need for major improvement in the coming weeks was glaring. Notre Dame had enough opportunities in the running game to have made a mark on the ground. It didn’t happen. There was an assumption Ball State brought significant pressure against Wimbush in the passing game, causing him to leave the pocket or attempt to scramble while eventually being sacked. Nope, many times Ball State only brought four rushers, sometimes five, against six or seven blockers, and they still got home. Not good.

No Movement In The Running Game

During this weeks Power Hour podcast, Irish Sports Daily analyst Jamie Uyeyama pointed out during the media viewing periods in fall camp, he noted the lack of inside running drills that were usually prevalent in practice periods, things like 9 on 7 inside running drills. It concerned him that the running game didn’t seem to be as emphasized as the prior season.

There could be some reasons for this, one of which was the lack of running back depth on the Irish roster. Losing a key player like Jafar Armstrong or Tony Jones Jr. would have been a significant blow to the football team with Dexter Williams out for four games, and three Irish running backs with eligibility remaining gone from the previous season. The media also could have come on lighter days; they only got to view five of 25 practices. They obviously missed quite a bit.

There is evidence of the lack of work and cohesion on the line, however, especially against a team like Ball State. Numerous times the line was slow to get off the ball, got stalemated or pushed back against inferior defenders, or seemed confused as to who they were supposed to pick up.

An example of the lack of explosiveness was on display on first and 10 from the Ball State 12 early in the second quarter. Notre Dame is six on six in the box, numbers that would indicate an advantage for the line. The left  defensive end starts the play shooting across the face for Robert Hainsey, splitting he and Tommy Kraemer and getting to the legs of Tony Jones Jr. Sam Mustipher is also beaten across his face by the nose tackle, an egregious sin since the tackle was shaded to his inside shoulder. The nose eventually makes the play. Kraemer loses his footing and falls, never getting to the back side backer. And to top it off Alize Mack, with a perfect angle to get the strong side linebacker, overruns the play and makes a poor effort. Jones makes the backer miss, but the tackle is made by the nose who beat Mustipher for a two yard gain.

The very next play, Notre Dame tries zone read, again six on six. This time Mustipher is stalemated by the nose guard, who looks to be a good 20 pounds lighter. Hainsey and Kraemer are folded up on the double team by the defensive end, who ends up occupying two blockers. Neither linebacker is ever touched. For his part, Jones Jr. actually had a hole to run through, but ran into the back of Mustipher instead, tried to reverse field for some reason, and lost four yards. What could have been a 3-4 yard gain turned into a four yard loss. Yuck.

Trouble In Pass Protection

Again I’m going to show two consecutive plays early in the game to show the line was simply not on the same page with pass protection. This is the area where I think they can make the most improvements because this is a communication issue, not necessarily a technique or ability issue. Guys were just getting turned loose.

On first and 10, from the Notre Dame 35, the Irish are going to have five blockers to pick up five rushers; Ball State is going to blitz both of their linebackers. Notre Dame is well equipped to handle this, Alex Bars is available to come off of his double team with Mustipher and pick up the blitzing linebacker right in his gap. Except he never sees him, and completely lets him go. A well timed and well placed throw by Wimbush results in a completion to the tight end and an 18 yard gain.

On the next play, from the Ball State 47, Notre Dame is faced with four rushers, three down linemen and one blitzing linebacker against their five blockers. For whatever reason, Tommy Kraemer leaves the man directly in front off him for Robert Hainsey, to double team the nose tackle, who is being handled by Sam Mustipher. Hainsey seems surprised at this, and lunges at the defensive end, who is now pressuring Wimbush forcing him to roll out. Hainsey’s lunge leaves the blitzing linebacker completely unblocked, who Wimbush avoids and eventually delivers a completion to Claypool.

The result of this four on five situation is the left tackle and left guard double teaming the end, the center and the right guard double teaming the nose, and Hainsey being left to block two players, and subsequently blocking none.

Needless to say, these aren’t the only examples of mistakes in this game by the line, who to be fair, weren’t the only culprits making mistakes on the day. It was a group effort. However, they are the most important, and they very much need to get things figured out because they might, MIGHT, be able to slide by the next couple of weeks, but come Stanford and Virginia Tech, mistakes like the ones we saw on Saturday will lead to losses.

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  1. Yes and no. The qb still has to recognize defenses and change plays accordingly. But if I had to apply one word for the O line it would be “slow” Unfortunately, the speed of each lineman is what it is. Don’t see a big leap coming in that department.

  2. I was at least encouraged about the OL from hearing Golic Jr. talk about it on this podcast. He says they will get better.

    I did not know this, but he said that Long has moved to the OL playing more man blocking instead of zone. So, there is a bit of a learning curve there in the communication across the line in terms of what each lineman is seeing and calls and checks being made.
    So, that is why you see a lineman double teaming and not seeing a blitzing LB. If a team is moving around a lot, which I imagine Ball State did to create confusion and to get an advantage for lack of size etc.
    Now throw the communication learning curve during live games along with “let down” mentality, and there you have it. and maybe with all that learning/thinking going on, maybe that’s why guys are firing off the line, they are too busy thinking.

    So probably more growing pains to come, but hopefully the let down mentality is behind them or the entire team for that matter.

  3. No fire off the line. Consistently beaten to point of attack. Hainsey looks extremely slow. Could be residual injury. Put Luggi at guard . Move Hainsey out. There was no chemistry on the O line period. No communication.

  4. Looks like Kelly was right when he called Mustipher atrocious 2 years ago.
    I just want to know where the “stable of running backs” is that I heard about all summer long. Oh yeah thats right, actual games have begun.

  5. Its highly doubtful that BK will replace BW unless he throws 5 interceptions and fumbles it four times. He hardly ever replaced Tom Rees so why would he pull Wimbush? These site have been jawing over last weeks game and how poorly the Irish played and I agree. But our arm chair coaching will accomplish absolutely nothing unless one of you has a direct line to Kelly and a hope that he will listen to you. I, personally, have resigned myself to just watch it happen be it good or bad. Next game the Irish may win 50-0 and then lose the rest of the way out but thats Notre Dame. I don’t like it but thats the way it is and it will never change has long as BK is the coach!

  6. For so many years with Harry Hiestand, Notre Dame fans have come to expect and take for granted stability and performance on the offensive line. Now, that is no longer true. In fact, the O line was a porous sieve last week. No better than 8-4 if this isn’t fixed quickly. Very good analysis, Greg.

    1. Let’s not polish up harry’s halo too much. The offensive line was far from perfect in the Georgia game and during the November swoon last year. He was a great offensive line coach, but nobody’s perfect and it would be unfair to pass judgement on Jeff Quinn after 2 games.

  7. One bright spot, are no false starts. Last year McGlinchey probably set a new school record for false starts. But, on the other hand one of the best blockers in Notre Dame history. It was like Babe Ruth setting the record for most strikeouts. This O line needs to get more offensive minded.

  8. I agree. I for one am happy that we played
    poorly and still got the win. There will be
    games this season that require a complete
    effort from all 3 phases plus coaching.
    It appears that most of the team is on the
    right track and the “O-Line” is the one area
    that is a bit behind the rest.

  9. Excellent observation..I have pointed out several times the ineffectiviness of our running game and the rbs who have played thus far, but the line play is always a major factor in run efficiency. Let’s get the
    OL doing its job before judging Wimbush, and for me, the RBs.

    1. This O-LINE should b MUCH BETTER than what weve seen!! OF the 5 lineman 2 were starters and 2 others saw plenty of playing time. 10 TACKLES FOR LOSS by BALL ST is unacceptable!! KELLY put himself on the line hiring QUINN, when at the time there were more experienced better options!! Only the next 10 games will tell, but so far they’ve looked overmatched both games!! AS for WIMBUSH there no reason in the world to constantly throw the ball up for grabs!! Even when he has time he floats passes to wide open receivers, same as last year!! He is still way to slow in his ability to see the field and going thru his options!! He’s played QB his whole life and now is in year 4 with the IRISH as bad as the O-LINE is ( and he had the best in the country last year ) there has been no improvement!!

      1. As Wimbush advocate I have to agree with you NDCrazy…’s his decision making o; pass plays
        that haven’t improved and may not. If so, I’ll move on to a replacement. The next two guys will decide his fate.

  10. Good article. Consistent ND O success can only come if OL is working. Otherwise no QB can have success. If preseason practice drills lacked inside running drills that may account for sluggish OL, and reflects poor planning by Kelly who’s ultimately responsible. Hopefully things improve before Stanford.

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