Notre Dame’s Midseason OL Reconfiguration Led to Second Half Surge, NY6 Bowl Appearance

There are a few truths in football that are universally accepted. One of those is that the team that wins in the trenches will likely win on the scoreboard. That may be even more true at a university that carries the moniker OLine U and depends heavily on that position group which it seemingly recruits at a higher level than other positions and at the highest levels of college football.

Heading into this season, Notre Dame had lost four long-time starters from its 2020 offensive line to the NFL. Robert Hainsey, Aaron Banks, Tommy Kraemer, and Liam Eichenberg started and were mainstays on the Notre Dame offensive line for over two years. While it is a daunting task to replace four offensive linemen of that caliber, it is not unreasonable to expect a university that recruits offensive linemen at the level of Notre Dame. Two years to prepare replacements should be an adequate amount of time to simply reload. However, that was not the case this season.

The Notre Dame roster of returning offensive linemen seemingly had no answers for replacing at least two of the four open spots on the offensive line. The left tackle position, arguably the most critical position on the offensive line and which protects the quarterback’s blind side, would ultimately be filled by true freshmen. The right guard position would be filled with Marshall transfer Cain Madden via the transfer portal. Zeke Correll, who had been training to be a center and Jarrett Patterson’s replacement since he arrived on campus, was moved from the center position to left guard. Meanwhile, fellow junior Andrew Kristofic started to train as a center. 5th year Josh Lugg would handle the RT spot.

When mammoth true freshman starting left tackle, Blake Fisher was lost for the regular season in the very first game with an injured knee, a revolving door of left tackle replacements began and would continue for the next four weeks. First Michael Carmody, then Tosh Baker, and then again to Michael Carmody. At the left guard position, it was clear to many early on that Zeke Correll, who performed at a very competent level as a center in 2020 when Patterson went down, including in the College Football Playoff Rose Bowl game against Alabama, was undersized as an offensive guard and he struggled mightily at that position throughout the first five games of the season.

Following the week five loss to 2021 CFP team Cincinnati, changes simply needed to be made. The running game had been completely inept, and the pass protection was amongst the very worst in college football. More specifically, something had to be done with the left side of the offensive line, and following the UC loss, changes were made. True freshman Joe Alt was moved into the LT role in place of Carmody and Baker and Andrew Kristofic would be inserted at the LG position replacing Zeke Correll. Both of these changes would remain permanent for the remainder of the season.

As soon as Alt and Kristofic were inserted into the lineup for the week six contest against Virginia Tech, the difference in production was immediate and pronounced by nearly every metric one might find. PFF pass-blocking grades that averaged 67 before the offensive line personnel changes averaged 78 after the changes were made. An offensive line that was allowing an average of 4.2 sacks per game before the change would allow only 1.6 sacks per game on average after. The protection was enhanced, and the passing game and offense started to take off.

The effect that reconfiguring the left side of the offensive line had on the running game was as dramatic as the pass blocking improvements, if not more. The PFF run-blocking grades that averaged 57.8 during the first five games improved to 77.9 after Alt and Kristofic were inserted on the left side. A running game that averaged a measly 80.8 yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry before the changes would average 203.3 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry after the changes.

This dramatic elevation in performance led to a second-half surge by the Irish, who would win their last seven games in increasingly dominant fashion. An offense that averaged only 26.6 points per game in the five weeks before the changes would average 36.4 points during the seven-game stretch after the changes were made. During that time, Notre Dame would rise to #5 in the College Football Playoff rankings and earn a New Year’s Six Fiesta Bowl appearance against #9 Oklahoma State.

Handling the Oklahoma State defense will be no small task for the Notre Dame offensive line. Oklahoma State is currently ranked #3 in total defense and #7 in scoring defense. Against the run, Oklahoma State is ranked 4th in the nation in opponent’s yards per attempt and 1st in tackles for loss. Against the pass, Oklahoma State ranks 1st in sacks. If that task wasn’t daunting enough, the Notre Dame offensive line lost RT Josh Lugg, who suffered a meniscus tear in bowl preparations. The 6’6” and 335-pound Fisher, now fully recovered from his week one meniscus tear, will handle the spot for the Fiesta Bowl.

In earning the New Year’s Six Bowl Game, Notre Dame has the opportunity to take a significant step forward as an ascendant program. Notre Dame is currently in the midst of a 27-year drought since their last major bowl victory and has also lost their previous four Fiesta Bowl appearances during that time. After the midseason reconfiguration, the dramatically improved play of the Notre Dame offensive line was vital to earning Notre Dame this opportunity to end both of those streaks. The play of that same offensive line will undoubtedly be key if Notre Dame is to capitalize on it.

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14 Comments

  1. Dukes mayo bowl game is another long list of shitty teams playing in a bowl game but worth watching the ending if winning coach gets Gatorade bucket of Mayonnaise dumped on his head.

    1. NC played a tight game into the Q4 on the road vs ND….and that wasn’t at the “weak beginning” to the season.
      So if they’re terrible….

      1. I agree with your first point, but not your second.

        I think the teams at the very top keep getting better, the gap to the next tier gets a bit wider, and it can appear to frustrated fans as though “everyone else” is going backwards.

      2. Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Clemson have been the team’s I would put in the top tier of college football teams the last 5 to 7 years. I would say 3 of those teams have taken some big steps backwards this year. The other 2 have stayed about the same. So I disagree with your opinion that the top tier teams are getting better and separating even further from the teams in the 2nd tier. IMO ND is a 2nd tier team that should be currently ranked somewhere between 10-14. They benefitted from a weak schedule . Hope they win Saturday but wouldn’t be surprised if they were handled rather easily by Oklahoma state.

      3. The problem with not being in the top tier NOW is that moving up into it keeps getting harder and harder. Thanks to recent changes, the football superpowers will likely be entrenched for many years.
        Being in the 10-14 range might seem encouraging, but for a school with the kind of “limitations” that ND imposes on its athletes, it isn’t.

        This is a pro sport without a draft lottery.

  2. David, you are a classic example of Notre Dame’s never ending dilemma.
    Teams like Oklahoma in 2012, Michigan as an opener several years ago, Clemson last year…they were all what Damien calls “elite” …until ND beats them…then they magically become “hilariously unworthy” opponents. David, as hobbled as we are, you already know what’s about to happen in the Fiesta Bowl, don’t you? Just innoculating the public, right. You are an insufferable jackass…a useless idiot. But you do have your effect on the simple minded.
    BGC 77 82

    1. Then don’t “suffer” me. Stop reading my posts.

      Otherwise, put on your big boy pants, and take the response your idiocy earns.
      Or be a whiny little bitch like Rhonda and get worse.

      Either way’s fine with me

  3. This is probably ND’s best matchup in an elite bowl in a long time. They never really had a shot against Ohio State or LSU when they faced them in a NY Day bowl game. But against OK State they at least have a 50-50 shot. OK State is a great team, make no mistake, and ND will have to play its best game of the season. This will not be an easy game. But head to head ND has a fighting chance this time.

    I would love ND to win this game. Put the freaking big bowl game drought behind us, beat a respected team, and show the former coach that ND doesn’t need him, and in fact can do better without him.

    Go Irish!

    1. Everyone here believed ND deserved to be be in the playoff, and said they would have a legitimate shot at winning it against the likes of Georgia and Alabama.

      ……now, the Okie St. Cowpokes are a worthy, worrisome opponent. A “50-50 shot”
      Hilartious.

  4. Here’s another ‘football truth’: You can’t win a national championship in September….but you sure as hell can lose one.
    ND was pure lucky to get all th way to Cincy undefeated.
    The coaches’ jobs are to have everyone ready to play by game 1. No excuses.

      1. The lonely little girl with her “Almanac of Obtuse Trivia” strikes again.
        Go down to the docks and earn a few bucks for yourself. Help Make America Great Again!

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