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Moller: Offensive line ready to prove itself over remainder of season

| Friday, October 29, 2021

The Irish offensive line has been one of the major issues for Notre Dame so far this season. This was surprising in some ways because last year’s offensive line was one of the best in the country. Losing Liam Eichenberg, Robert Hainsey, Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks to the NFL left holes for the Irish to fill ahead of the 2021 season.

Despite these unknowns ahead of the season, there was still plenty of optimism around this offensive line unit. The Irish seemingly had young, highly recruited players that were ready to step up and make an immediate difference for the Irish. Unfortunately for the Irish, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned.

In the season-opening game against Florida State, the Irish went with first-year Blake Fisher at left tackle, junior Zeke Correll at left guard, senior Jarrett Patterson at center, graduate student Cain Madden at right guard and graduate student Josh Lugg at right tackle. While Patterson, Madden and Lugg have retained their starting spots, there are some new faces on the left side of the offensive line that are making an immediate impact for the Irish.

The biggest hit for the offensive line was the injury to true freshman left tackle Blake Fisher, who tore his meniscus in the season-opening victory against Florida State. With Fisher out, the Irish turned to sophomore Michael Carmody and sophomore Tosh Baker at left tackle, but neither of them was able to successfully protect the quarterback’s blindside, leading to numerous sacks and an incapable Jack Coan in the pocket.

Since then, true freshman Joe Alt has stepped up to the plate for the Irish. He has been able to make a huge difference in his rookie season. The Minnesota native started getting more playing time at the position against Wisconsin. And he has since taken over the position because of his success. Alt has earned starts in each of the last two games against Virginia Tech and USC. His presence on the field instantly improved an offensive line that struggled with quarterback protection.

Another difference-maker for the Irish as of late has been junior Andrew Kristofic. He received his first start of the season for the Irish at left guard in last weekend’s win over USC. With Zeke Correll sidelined due to concussion protocol, Kristofic stepped up. The way the offensive line played when he did, I don’t see Kristofic losing his starting spot unless his play gets drastically worse.

Center Jarrett Patterson seemed to be one of the only givens for the Irish offensive line coming into the season. He started all of his sophomore season and most of 2020 before sustaining a left foot injury. Even Patterson, however, seemed to be a bit lackluster coming back from his injury. Just recently, he has seemed to be playing like his old self.

Right guard Cain Madden was arguably the biggest pickup for the Irish in the offseason in the transfer portal. The transfer from Marshall was named an All-American in 2020 and received first-team All-Conference USA honors in 2019 and 2020. It was expected that he would have immediate success at Notre Dame. That was not the case, however, as Madden struggled to adjust at first. Initially, he failed to assert himself when the Irish tried to run the football. I think many underestimated the adjustment Madden would have to make to match up against the bigger size of Power 5 lineman. Nevertheless, Madden has continued to improve and helps lead an improving Irish run game.

Coming into the season, it was obvious that Josh Lugg was going to receive playing time. It was simply a matter of where on the line that would be. Before this year, Lugg had never started for the Irish with any consistency. He did, however, fill in constantly for the offensive line in previous years when injuries occurred. Like his teammates, Lugg has helped lead an improving Irish offense in the running and passing games.

It is no doubt that the offensive line has improved with these five players in. Looking at the games against Virginia Tech and USC, the Irish totaled 180 and 170 yards on the ground respectively. These were the games where Alt, Kristofic, Patterson, Madden and Lugg received substantial playing time. That is a drastic improvement from the previous two weeks against Wisconsin and Cincinnati where the Irish had just three yards and 84 yards respectively on the ground. Tackles for loss were a huge issue for the Irish offense as well early in the season. The offensive line allowed a stunning eight TFL over the first five games of the season. In the past two games, the Irish have only allowed three TFL.

The pass protection has been significantly better as well as of late. Through the first four games of the season, the Irish allowed an average of just over five sacks a game. However, in the last two weeks, they have allowed only three total sacks. This keeps the Irish from third and long situations and allows quarterback Jack Coan to be more comfortable in the pocket. With this newfound comfort, Coan can find more opportunities downfield that he wasn’t seeing at the beginning of the season.

The Irish wrap up the season against North Carolina, Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Stanford. Each of those teams has struggled on defense this season. I expect this offensive line unit to continue to find success against these defenses and develop throughout the season. This unit is undoubtedly the main reason that the Irish offense has been anemic at times this season. Despite that, I have truly been impressed by the unit’s progression this season. Look for Alt, Kristofic, Patterson, Madden and Lugg to continue to start the remainder of the year. And Correll and Baker will be viable backups, should they be needed.

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About Nate Moller

Nate is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. He is originally from a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and is currently living in Siegfried Hall. Some of his passions include running, cross country skiing, and getting too worked up about Notre Dame and Minnesota sports teams.

Contact Nate