Baptism by fire
Matt Lozar | Tuesday, September 9, 2003
For two quarters Saturday afternoon, the Notre Dame offensive line looked like a unit that lost four starters to the National Football League.
The offense had gained 8 net rushing yards. Facing blitzes from Washington State on nearly every play, quarterback Carlyle Holiday had trouble staying upright, fumbled four times (losing three) and experienced trouble on numerous snaps with the exchange and tripping over the line. Each time the offense got into the red zone, the offensive line committed a costly penalty, pushing the Irish back and relegating them to a field goal.
At halftime, the coaching staff made some adjustments in the protection schemes but it took some time for those changes to become effective. In the fourth quarter, the coaches also moved starting center Bob Morton to right guard, inserted Zach Giles to center and took right guard Sean Milligan from the game.
Whether it was the change in protection, change in the lineup or just becoming used to actual game tempo, the Irish kept Holiday upright in the fourth quarter and amassed 119 yards rushing. Not coincidentally, the Irish scored 20 points.
“One of the great things about our offensive line this year is that we are so versatile,” Morton said. “In the second half, they put Zach Giles in at center and bumped me to right guard. That’s something we knew would happen at some point during the season.”
“I definitely think it was settling in and getting used to game speed,” Milligan said. “All you really need is to get your nose bloodied a little bit and then you’ll be ready to go.”
The Cougars tested the youthful Irish offensive line, bringing blitz after blitz.
In the first half, it worked.
Holiday was crushed by blindside hits where a Washington State defender went untouched before putting a lick on the Irish quarterback. Not being able to feel the pressure, Holiday lost the ball three times, recovering it once. The two lost fumbles led to 10 Washington State points.
Seeing the game slip away due to the relentless attack on his quarterback, Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham and the rest of his offensive staff went to work on how to protect their signal-caller.
“We had to make some [changes] in our protection because they were giving us some strong side pressure that we tried to have [Holiday] recognize and they did a good job, sometimes slipping a guy by,” Willingham said. “We tried do some things as coaches and the coaches did a good job of adjusting and putting our team in a better position to make our protection a little more solid where we could give [Holiday] time to do some things.”
Given more time in the second half, Holiday was able to make some things happen. He scrambled for long gains when he couldn’t find any of his receivers. Facing a Cougar blitz on second and goal in the fourth quarter, Holiday hit wide receiver Rhema McKnight on a slant over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown that brought the Irish within three.
But Holiday wasn’t the only one who benefited from the improved offensive line play from the first to second half.
While the running backs saw marginal improvement in the third quarter (13 net rushing yards), the real difference was seen in the fourth quarter.
The ground game led by Ryan Grant and Julius Jones rushed more effectively, including five runs over 10 yards by Grant and Jones. Attribute that production to two things – the Cougars’ defense wearing down and the overall size and strength of the two Irish running backs.
“I felt especially in the second half things started to go our way a little bit better and I could sense they were getting a little frustrated, a little tired,” tackle Dan Stevenson said. “That’s when we try to just keep pounding.”
“If you give anybody in the backfield the ball, you don’t have to worry as an offensive lineman about a one-arm tackle or tripping up these backs,” Morton said. “You are talking about some amazing athletes who do things with the ball that normally can’t be done. It’s a pleasure to block for any of them.”
When the breaks weren’t going their way in the first half, the inexperienced line could have mailed it in for the rest of the game. What that second half performance showed was the attitude this line wants to illustrate each and every time it steps on the field.
“We fight hard. A lot of things about today were ugly, but we fight hard,” Morton said. “We fought hard for 60 minutes. The fourth quarter was the toughest part of our fight.
“If that’s something that we can say to other people, that will win us some games.”