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Offensive line still coping with handling blitzes

Andrew Soukup | Friday, September 26, 2003

When it comes to handling the blitz, Notre Dame’s offensive line is taking one approach.

If you can’t stop them, burn them.

That’s what the Irish did Saturday against Michigan State, when the Spartans sent eight rushers on one play, only to see a screen pass go for 29-yards the other way.

“After that, I got the feeling like they were back on their feet a little bit,” center Zach Giles said. “Instead of three guys, they were only sending one.”

But what Notre Dame’s struggling offense hasn’t done yet this season is handle the blitz well. It started in Notre Dame’s season-opener against Washington State, when quarterback Carlyle Holiday was drilled three times on blindside hits and fumbled twice. In all, the Irish offensive line allowed six sacks that day. Since then, every team the Irish have faced has loaded the box and sent multiple rushers.

So far, it’s paid off. The Irish offense, the fifth-worst in the nation, has surrendered 11 sacks throughout the entire season.

“When we started having problems picking up Washington State’s blitz, then it’s no surprise that Michigan came with it and Michigan State came with it,” Giles said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if Purdue is going to come with it.”

The key to beating a blitz, the Irish say, is to develop an effective running game that can move the ball and take advantage of holes left by blitzing linebackers and defensive backs. Once the running game has been established, the defense can’t commit as many players to the blitz as they would on a passing down, thus giving the quarterback fractions of a second more of time to release the ball.

“You’re taking their strength and making it a weakness,” Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham said. “Anytime you do that it changes the way people have to look at themselves.”

Or that’s how it should work in theory. In practice, the Irish offensive line that is still young and inexperienced has had more trouble in Notre Dame’s first three games than Irish coaches expected.

“I think that we knew it would be growing pains,” offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said. “But it’s time some of those kids quit crawling and started walking and running.”

Giles maintains that the Irish are “one man away” from breaking 10 to 15-yard runs, which he is confident will open up the passing game and make life easier for Holiday and Brady Quinn. Part of that problem, Giles said, comes from the fact that the chemistry along the offensive line isn’t quite solid yet – something that can only be gained through games.

And for a young offensive line, handling the different blitz schemes thrown by opposing defenses has proven more than difficult. In some cases, when eight defenders rush a line that features only six blockers, at least two blitzers could get through unmolested. In cases like those, Giles said the offensive line has to “get big.”

“You can’t block two people,” he said. “You just try to take the steam off the quarterback so he can have an extra quarter of a second.

“As soon as we start giving the quarterback more time, the blitz will not hurt as much.”

Offensive line still coping with handling blitzes