Notre Dame football: Zack Martin gains unique distinction
At first glance, left tackle Zack Martin's selection as Pinstripe Bowl MVP was met by raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders from media members.
Maybe it was just that sort of football game.
Notre Dame's 29-16 win over Rutgers Saturday was hardly an instant classic.
Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, despite throwing for 319 yards, had holes in his game wide enough to drive a truck through. Notre Dame running backs and receivers were hardly special. The defense had flaws.
It seemed a perfect opportunity for an offensive lineman to be named a bowl MVP for the first time in more than half a century. The last time it happened was Dec. 19, 1959, when Penn State's Jay Huffman was the MVP of the Nittany Lions' 7-0 Liberty Bowl win over Alabama. It was the first bowl game in the careers of legendary coaches Rip Engle (Penn State) and Paul "Bear" Bryant (Alabama).
Then, a review of Martin's highlight film made it obvious that his selection wasn't a default pick.
The 6-foot-4, 308-pounder was really good.
The video showed Martin piling up a large stack - pancake after pancake - while dominating the undersized Rutgers defensive line.
He was a critical component in the revival of the Irish running game that turned a halftime tie into a double-digit victory.
The fifth-year player also put an exclamation point on an amazing career.
Besides being a dependable and productive anchor on the left side, the two-time captain was the glue that kept the line heading in a positive direction when injuries threatened to cause havoc.
"I was giving Rees and everyone a hard time," Martin said with a laugh. "They kind of just found someone to give (the MVP award) to.
"Everyone played great - offensive line, backs, quarterback, receivers. It was really a team win."
"(Martin) is the best offensive lineman I've ever coached, and I've coached some great ones," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
Up until now, former Central Michigan standout Joe Staley - a high draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers - set the bar for a Kelly regime. Now, Martin has assumed the mantle.
"Besides his play, he's had three first-time starters (his brother center Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley) with him for most of the year," Kelly said, noting that Conor Hanratty's recent arrival for left guard Chris Watt made four. "It's amazing, his influence. Very rarely do you have that. I call it the 'Larry Bird effect.' An offensive lineman can make others around him better.
"He does that. He's made that offensive line. Those linemen play so well because of his leadership. He's an outstanding and a unique player."
"We have a philosophy, a mentality - especially on the offensive line - you've gotta be ready when your number's called," Martin said. "(Offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand holds everyone on the line to very high standards. That has shown all year. We haven't had a drop-off all year.
"When Hanratty went off (with a leg injury late in Saturday's game) we brought (seldom- used Mark Harrell) in. We shuffled guys in all season."
It's hard to quantify the impact of the offensive line woes within the framework of the Irish offense. It took most of the season for Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel to settle in as the running back tandem. Without continuity in personnel at running back, it was difficult to pin inconsistent production on the line.
Saturday, after generating 63 yards on 20 rushes in the first 30 minutes against the fourth-ranked defense against the run, the Irish piled up 112 on 23 rushes - and a three-yard TD run by Folston - to ice the victory.
"Coming into the game, we didn't know when, but we knew there was going to be a point where the backs and the offensive line were going to have to take over," Martin said. "We were able to put some long drives together and finally got the ball into the end zone at the end."
One tweak of the plan that helped: Because of the slippery field, the Irish stopped trying to run wide, and instead headed up the middle for many of their runs.
"The whole game we didn't do a great job finishing," Martin said. "That's on us. It was nice to be able to pound the ball at the end and seal the victory with that last touchdown.
"This is pretty special, to go out there and have a close game. We were able to impose our will a little bit. You couldn't ask for a better group of guys to go out with."
The Irish went out with plenty of reason for hope for the future.
"We had our ups and downs," Martin said, giving a post-mortem on the season. "We could have taken advantage of some opportunities. This is a team of fighters, a team that, if you watch the tape of any of our losses, we were fighting right down to the very end.
"We've got this thing going in the right direction."
And Martin has had a major role operating the compass.