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Irish offensive line uses physical mentality for success

Chris Masoud | Thursday, September 15, 2011

Despite the meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful analysis that goes into each play offensive coordinator Charley Molnar draws up for junior running back Cierre Wood, a large part of the success of each run comes down to one simple challenge — which side of linemen can push the other further.

Much of the credit for Wood’s success this season, which includes an average of 5.2 yards per carry, goes to an offensive line that has emerged as one of the few constants for the Irish. And the unit knows it.

“[Wood] likes to talk a bit, but we bring him down to earth,” senior guard Trevor Robinson said.

Notre Dame’s 0-2 record is indicative of an offense still fighting the turnover plague, not one that has amassed 1,021 yards of total offense in just eight quarters of football.

The emergence of Wood and other Irish playmakers have contributed to the sheen of Notre Dame’s statline, but the offensive line’s often-overlooked contributions in the trenches may be the biggest improvement in Irish coach Brian Kelly’s offense in year two.

“I think the offensive line has made such a great difference,” Molnar said. “We have more time in the pocket to throw the football, [which] helps the quarterback make better decisions. Obviously when the run game gets going and teams start committing more guys to stop the run, it opens up things in the pass game. How did we get to this point? [By] sticking to the guys that are our best players.”

Those players include second-year starters Braxston Cave and Zack Martin, two stalwarts offensive line coach Ed Warinner believes are still unfinished products. Martin credits the line’s early success to excellent communication and a unique chemistry that stems from the unit’s experience together.

“We’re a real tight group, one of the tighter groups on the team,” Martin said. “If someone’s getting bull-rushed, the other guy next to him knows when and how to help him out. The guy who’s getting rushed on is confident the guy next to him is going to help him. Every game we’re growing as an offensive line.”

Warinner said the process of changing the team’s mindset was a critical task upon arriving at Notre Dame in late 2009. The offensive line has adopted a renewed focus on physical play, and success has followed.

“We want that to be a trademark of our football team,” Warinner said. “We think we have been physical up front the last two weeks. We think we’re getting what we want.

“The players are playing more physical. We talk about ‘who’s going to be more physical, who’s going to be more competitive and who’s going to execute,’ is going to win this game.”

While much of Notre Dame’s success on the ground has been attributed to the offensive line, the blockers also pride themselves on their ability to keep sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees on his feet. The line has yielded just two sacks this season, successfully protecting Rees on all 39 of his passes against Michigan on Saturday.

“We’ve got to keep the quarterback up,” Martin said. “He’s not the mobile guy back there. He does a great job of getting rid of the ball when he sees pressure, sliding in the pocket. We just got to continue this week to protect him. He’s got our back as much as we’ve got his.”

Molnar credits Rees’ ability to find open receivers to the offensive line’s ability to give him the window he needs to scan the field.

“He just needs a little bit of time,” Molnar said. “He needs the average amount of time that a pass requires, and he’ll get rid of the ball and he’ll usually make a good decision. Right now our guys are doing a great job keeping the pocket clean for the quarterback, allowing him to look down the field and go through his progression.”

As Notre Dame looks for its first win of the season Saturday against Michigan State, the offensive line faces its toughest test yet against a Spartans defensive line that features two of the nation’s best in juniors Jerel Worthy and Anthony White.

Robinson remains confident the line can hold the line of scrimmage and continue its recent success against the Spartans.

“They can rush the passer. They pride themselves in stopping the run, but they can certainly get after the quarterback, and that’s something we need to focus on, and we do,” he said. “We’ve been generally satisfied with the way we’ve played the pass protection so far, but there’s definitely room for improvement.”