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Coming together

Chris Federico | Thursday, November 13, 2003

It’s been a real trial by fire for the Notre Dame offensive line through the first nine games of the 2003 season.

The Irish began the year with a near completely rebuilt offensive line as only one true starter returned – senior guard Sean Milligan. Things got off to a rocky start for the inexperienced squad as it allowed seven quarterback sacks in the home opener against Washington State.

A season-ending injury to Milligan in the Michigan game, an injury to right guard Dan Stevenson in the Florida State game and the flip-flopping of Zach Giles and Bobby Morton at center have caused nine different players to start along the Irish offensive line this year.

But the Irish have overcome this rash of injuries and position changes along the line and settled into their roles in the second half of the season, as in the last three games, they have not allowed a single sack on rookie quarterback Brady Quinn.

Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham attributes the improvement along the offensive line to the increased amount of experience and playing time they have seen this year.

“As the guys continue to get more time on the field, I believe they develop what I call a library of football information, which really is more experience,” Willingham said. “And the more experienced you become, the more accustomed you are to gain speed, the more accustomed you are to changes and adjustments that take place.”

Willingham has noted that it has been the finer points of the game that the offensive line has picked up most as the players along that position have gained more experience and time on the field.

“[It’s the] little things, just like getting set at the right – at the same level; which when you face a stunt, everybody can still have the right guy that they are blocking, but if you are not at the right level you will allow penetration and therefore you give an opportunity for a sack,” he said. “So it’s little things of that nature that as they become more experienced, they get better and better at performing run blocking and also pass protection.”

Along the way, they have also helped tailback Julius Jones to a couple of 200-yard performances against Pittsburgh and Navy. Against the Panthers, Jones set a Notre Dame record for rushing yards in a single game with 262.

But the Irish face a new task this week in a Cougar defense that likes to give quarterbacks and offensive lines many different looks and brings a lot of pressure on the signal caller. It is a defense that could be similar to the one the Irish faced at Purdue – where Quinn, in his first game as a starter, was heavily pressured all afternoon and knocked down nearly 20 times.

“We have to play a team this week that’s going to blitz and stunt unbelievably,” Willingham said of the BYU defense. “I almost call it one of those maniac defenses that we’re going to face that you really don’t know where they are coming from or what alignment they are really in.”