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Inside defensive line crucial to Irish pass rush

Pat Leonard | Thursday, October 7, 2004

The Irish linebackers plugged the holes in Notre Dame’s first five games. The cornerbacks stymied the outside sweeps. Opponents amassed nonexistent rushing attacks, gaining just 90.8 yards per game.And the Irish run defense that held BYU to 22 rushing yards began in the same place it did when the Irish held Purdue to 99 yards rushing – on the defensive line.”I think we’re playing pretty tough against the run,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Greg Pauly said. “Hopefully, by the end of the season we’ll establish a name for ourselves that way.”Pauly [6-foot-6, 205 pounds] is one of three players who see significant playing time on the interior defensive line, along with nose tackles Derek Landri and Trevor Laws. Though the rush coming from the outside is often the spotlight of defensive lines because of sweeping athletic play from players like Justin Tuck, the interior linemen give the initial push that dictates the rush on the quarterback or running back.”The play of all of those guys … is based on the productivity of the group,” Willingham said. “What we try to do is rotate those guys in such a manner that you’ve created one with the many and to keep them fresh, keep them active and keep our defense being productive.”The line’s production hinges on stopping the run first, making the entire defense hinge on stopping the run, as well. Stanford averages 137.5 yards rushing and 266.8 yards passing, so the Cardinal will look to throw the ball.But Pauly and his linemates’ priorities cannot change.”We go into every game saying we have to stop the run, that’s always the first thing,” defensive line coach Greg Mattison said. “And even though [Stanford is] a team that passes a lot, you’ve got to stop the run. From there, any sack opportunity we have is on a passing down when we’re one-on-one blocked, and we have to win those.”The line has recorded 10 sacks on the season to opponents’ 12. Stanford has surrendered 11 sacks in four games, but Tuck told reporters and coaches that he felt a lot of Stanford’s success should be attributed to an improved offensive line.Willingham agreed with his defensive end.”They are a sizable line. I think their smallest guy is about 290 [pounds],” Willingham said. “And they seem to have good athletic skill. They seem to be working well together … So it’s kind of an impressive group that has size and good athletic potential that seems to be playing very well together.”The Notre Dame defensive front halted Purdue’s rush offense last week, but the Irish only sacked quarterback Kyle Orton twice. The pass rush had been solid for the most part until the game against the Boilermakers. Pauly said the quick Purdue offense left no time for the line to rush Orton.”The quarterback has to hold on to the ball long enough for us to get there,” Pauly said. “In Purdue’s situation, they were releasing the ball so quick, a lot of times he was throwing it right when we were hitting him. We hit him a couple times, but he was releasing the ball too fast. If the cornerbacks are staying on those receivers, it can give us enough time.”Pauly leads the interior linemen with 16 tackles [seven solo] and a half-sack. Laws [6-foot, 285 pounds] has 12 tackles [seven solo] and a sack. Landri [6-foot-2, 278 pounds] has 11 tackles and five solo.”It’s tough, it’s two-on-three usually because you’ve got the center and two guards blocking me and Derek [Landri] or me and Trevor [Laws],” Pauly said. “And it’s tough because usually you’re getting double teamed or someone’s slamming back down on you, but I think we’re getting a good push.”But tackles are not the only statistic that measures the line’s success.”You’re never pleased because you always want them to get 100 sacks, but the one statistic that I don’t think a lot of people noticed is we’ve probably batted down more passes this year than we ever have already,” Mattison said, “and I always talk to our kids about the fact if you can deflect the pass it’s as good as a sack.”By deflection, sack or tackle, the line could be the key against another throwing Pac-10 team in Stanford on Saturday.