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Push ’em back

Joe Hettler | Tuesday, November 18, 2003

They took much of the blame when Notre Dame’s offense struggled this season. But after Saturday’s win over BYU, they deservedly took much of the credit.

The Irish offensive line has battled through injury and inexperience to become a better unit as the season has progressed, and the results have been clear in the last few games.

“The line has really matured throughout the season,” tackle Jim Molinaro said. “We’ve had our tough times, but we’re really coming together as a unit.”

The group did not allow a sack against Florida State, Boston College and Navy, before giving up two against BYU. They have blocked well for Julius Jones in his two 200-yard rushing performances, as well as the tailback’s 161-yard game versus the Cougars.

After losing four players to the NFL draft at the end of the 2002 season, this year’s offensive line was a concern from the beginning of spring practice. The only returning starter, guard Sean Milligan, was injured early in the season and hasn’t played since the Michigan game Sept. 13. Centers Bobby Morton and Zachary Giles have switched in and out of their position throughout the season, and tackle/guard Dan Stevenson hasn’t played in two games because of an injury.

That’s left a thin offensive line even thinner. But the Irish have persevered and made great strides in the last several weeks.

“I think anytime you put five guys – in our case nine – into the heat of battle, over a ten or 11-week span, you grow closer,” Morton said. “On the field and off the field, you really develop a trust among each other. It’s a really good situation.”

Quarterback Brady Quinn has seen his sack numbers decrease in the last few games, and he said the line’s play has enabled the entire offense to make great strides.

“Anytime I see [the offensive line] come together, and the running game is picking up, it gives me confidence in the passing game,” Quinn said.

After a slow start, Jones has seen his numbers improve, and some of that credit should go to the offensive line. Since the USC game, and excluding the Boston College contest, Jones has had solid rushing statistics in every game – averaging 135.5 yards in those four contests. He agrees that line has come together more, and he believes they will improve even more during the rest of the season and into 2004.

“They are going to be outstanding,” Jones said. “They are young this year – a lot of them have never played before – but they got a lot of experience this year, and they have done pretty well.