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FOOTBALL: Offensive line steps up intensity in practice

Chris Hine | Friday, September 7, 2007

Notre Dame’s offensive line had the entire summer camp to prepare for Georgia Tech’s blitzing defense but gave up 19 tackles for loss and nine sacks. So, with only one week to prepare for No. 14 Penn State, what does the Irish line have to do better this week?

“We’ve got to be more physical,” sophomore guard Dan Wenger said. “We have to show up this time. We can’t back down.”

In order to be more physical, the line has stepped up the intensity this week by simulating a game environment during practice.

“[We’ve been] playing harder, coming off faster, finishing plays, finishing until the whistle blows, chasing the ball, everything,” right tackle Sam Young said. “[We’ve practiced] everything that goes into a game, what you see in a game, not necessarily all the time in practice. You have to play practice like it’s a game and that’s what makes it more physical.”

Against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame started with the spread option with sophomore Demetrius Jones under center. This week, the Irish will return to a traditional offense under Weis with freshman Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. But regardless of what offense the team runs, the line’s preparation stays the same.

“It’s really not different,” Young said. “We’ve been running passes all along, you know we’ve been running the same stuff all camp so basically the biggest thing is we really have to fine tune and perfect all the things that we didn’t do well last week. And it’s not necessarily who’s behind us because whoever’s behind us is capable of leading us to a victory. It’s about us up front, and we have to take our responsibility on our shoulders.”

Clausen will be making his first start Saturday against one of the most reputable defensive programs in the country. But if you ask Young, there is only one thing the Irish have to do to help Clausen ease into the game.

“Protect him. Block better, execute better,” Young said. “It’s pretty simple.”

In order to protect Clausen, the Irish will have to do a better job picking up the blitz. Notre Dame had trouble contending with Georgia Tech’s disguised blitz packages last week. This week should be no exception against the Nittany Lions, who return two highly-touted linebackers in Sean Lee and Dan Connor. Fifth-year center John Sullivan said the Irish should be ready if Penn State tries to emulate Georgia Tech.

“That’s up to the Penn State coaches,” Sullivan said. “I know we’ll be prepared for that. You know, if they feel that they have to change what they do just because it was successful for someone else, you know, I think that’s a good sign for us.”

In order to protect against the rush, the Irish have worked this week to improve their communication. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said last week that his team had to do a better job communicating with each other – which could prove to be a tough task in front of an estimated 107,000 fans at Beaver Stadium.

“But we practice for things like that and noise can be a factor,” Sullivan said. “I don’t expect it will be because I think we are prepared to handle that. Mainly we’re the only ones that can affect the offensive line. There’s nothing that 100,000 screaming fans in the stands can do to change the way we play.”

For Young, the best way to deal with the noise is to channel it into a positive.

“Me personally, I like noise, I like the environment, and I think our offense really has to learn to feed off it,” Young said. “We have to really work this week – execution, knowing what the guy next to you is going to be doing – because 110,000 people you’re not going to hear that well so you have to be ready for that.”

The Irish will face a Penn State defense that returns multiple starters from a squad that allowed just over 14 points per game and finished seventh in the nation in rush defense.

“It’s going to be a harsh environment,” Sullivan said. “If we are focused and focused in on the things we need to do individually and go out and execute, it should be no problem going out there.”