High expectations, elite defenses keep heat on Notre Dame line
PITTSBURGH — Aaron Taylor watched the Temple game pretty much in the way everybody else did.
For once, he let his eyes follow the ball last weekend. He let the scoreboard dictate his levels of acid reflux.
He didn’t circle back later via DVR to repeatedly analyze the collisions in the trenches and whether Notre Dame’s offensive line was bearing out to be the safety net, the muscle, the identity of an Irish football team (7-1) that suddenly finds itself in the middle of the dizzying College Football Playoff hypotheticals.
Taylor already knew that same O-line remains in the midst of a run of opposing defenses that likely can and will make it prove itself over and over again.
That includes Saturday’s noon matchup (ABC-TV) at Heinz Field between the nation’s No. 8 team in the AP poll and No. 5 in the CFP rankings, and a Pitt team off it its best start (6-2) since 2009, a year the Panthers helped push former Irish head coach Charlie Weis out the exit door.
“You’re not going to exert your will every single week against every single opponent,” cautioned Taylor, a former Irish All-America offensive lineman and a current college football analyst for CBS Sports.
But he also knows that’s the standard at Notre Dame — that you’re expected to do so anyway.
That’s what Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand preaches, and why every offensive line unit since he arrived at ND months before its 2012 national title game run stays late after every practice to put in overtime.
And that’s what would put a smile on the face of the late Joe Moore, a Hiestand mentor and former legendary line coach whose legacy is most closely connected to the two schools that clash Saturday at Heinz Field.
That this O-line in preseason drew Moore Era comparisons, overlapping when Lou Holtz was ND’s head coach, makes their growing pains and flaws a larger target for criticism.
And they have been rebuked at times, or at least questioned, particularly for the two games in which Notre Dame’s traditional running game sputtered — the 24-22 loss at now CFP No. 1 Clemson on Oct. 3, and in the 24-20 comeback win over CFP No. 22 Temple Saturday night, with run defenses rated nationally No. 14 and 10, respectively.
“The strategy with teams is to take away the thing they’re most concerned about,” Taylor said. “When I go into a meeting with a coaching staff, almost every time they say, ‘The first thing we’ve got to do is stop the run.’ No matter what offense that other team runs, that’s what they tell you they’ve got to do.
“Temple committed to doing that, taking away the inside runs. But they opened themselves up to other things. They slanted and brought pressure. But, oops, they left one of their gaps open. DeShone Kizer found it and took it to the house for a 79-yarder that one time, and Notre Dame still ended up with more than five yards a carry (5.4).
“Teams are always trying to take away your strengths. The phrase ‘take what the defense gives you’ really applies. If they’re taking away the run, you find something else that works. It’s the teams that don’t have the ability to find something else that are playing left-handed or at a disadvantage.”
To what extent Pitt can press the Irish into that scenario and how loudly the Irish offensive line answers is a dominant story line in Saturday’s matchup.
The Panthers rank 37th in rushing yards allowed per game, but 80th (out of 127) in yards per carry allowed (4.53). Their ability to play possession football and slow the tempo on offense helps skew their defensive numbers in a positive way.
Opposing teams are averaging an FBS-low 58.8 offensive plays a game against Pittsburgh.
Also in Pitt’s corner is first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi’s history of strong player development paired with an elite scheme, during an eight-year run as defensive coordinator at Michigan State.
The last time the Irish faced a Narduzzi defense, they labored for a 2.4 yards-per-carry average against the Spartans in 2013, and amassed just 220 total yards on 66 plays offensively. Yet the Irish prevailed, 17-13, in what turned out to be Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan State’s only loss that season.
Statistically, MSU finished that season as the No. 2 team in the nation in rush defense, No. 2 in total defense, No. 1 in pass-efficiency defense and No. 3 in scoring defense.
The Panthers don’t have the raw talent of Clemson, or the front-seven experience and chemistry of Temple. They’re still growing into Narduzzi’s scheme after giving up 37 points to FCS school Youngstown State in a season-opening eight-point win.
They haven’t given up more than 28 points in any game since.
The offensive numbers swimming around the Irish offensive line this season, puffed up by the unit’s many bright moments, are unlike anything Pitt has seen this season. North Carolina, a 26-19 winner over the Panthers last week, is the only unit ranked higher than 68th in total offense in the FBS that the Panthers have faced.
The Irish are 17th, and the line has provided the stability for an offense that lost its starters at quarterback, running back and tight end to injuries during the season’s first two games.
And yet the Irish are averaging 36.5 points per game, not far off of the school record pace of 37.6, set in 1968.
The Irish are not only prolific in the running game (15th nationally in yards per game), but explosive. Notre Dame ranks third in the FBS with 16.23 percent of its total offensive plays resulting in rushes for 12 yards or more (50 of 546). Georgia Southern and Baylor began the week as the only teams ahead of ND.
Only five teams — Georgia Southern, Air Force, LSU, Oregon and Arizona — are averaging better than ND’s sixth-best nationally 5.9 yards per carry.
Individually, converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise, coming off a season-low 25 rushing yards, vs. Temple, is just 53 yards away from becoming the 18th Notre Dame player in history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
If he gets there Saturday, only Vegas Ferguson (1979) will have done so in fewer games (8) and likely only Reggie Brooks (1992) will have done so in fewer carries (120).
But because of a more consistent run of stout defenses down the stretch, especially against the run (Boston College on Nov. 21 is No. 1 in that category and several others), and because of obstacles the line is still in the process of trying to overcome, defining it and its ceiling isn’t easy.
“I just think what we need to do is really be, as a unit, consistent, no penalties,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday evening, shortly before the team’s unusually early getaway to Pittsburgh.
“That’s obviously been the No. 1 thing with the offensive line — eliminating penalties, and then that one missed assignment that always seems to come at the most inopportune times. Those two things, if we can eradicate them on Saturday, I think we can look to our offensive line having a big day.”
Two members of the starting unit, left guard Quenton Nelson and center Nick Martin, have been coming back from high ankle sprains, an injury Taylor said can linger for weeks. And he’s speaking from experience.
“I played my whole final season in the NFL with a high ankle sprain, and I barely practiced,” he said. “You can’t protect it, because the nature of the injury is that the tissue that’s between your tibia and fibula is a weight-bearing deal. Any time you step, those bones are going to separate, which reinjures the high ankle.
“I’m not saying my scenario is their scenario, but it’s a way harder injury to recover from and way more painful than a regular ankle sprain — because you can stabilize a joint. You can’t stabilize your bones.”
Getting used to playing with Kizer and Prosise, as well as they’ve performed, was a big adjustment for the line as well.
They had to get used to Kizer’s cadence and inflection at the line of scrimmage, which caused some early illegal procedure penalties. They had to get used to his timing that is so necessary for a play to fully develop.
“Even when things break down, you have to develop a feel for where your new quarterback’s going to be, how he’s going to break,” Taylor said. “When he gets a middle pressure, is he going to bail right? Is he going to bail left?
“If he gets pressure from the left, does he step up or does he spin out or roll out? Each quarterback is going to have his own tendencies. You don’t study that. You just have a feel for where they’re going to be. And when there’s a new guy, that feel changes.”
The same is true of running backs. In fact, even when the Irish weren’t shuffling starters during Taylor’s playing days, three or four times a season Joe Moore would have the backs and the line watch film together.
“We’d watch inside drill — what are you thinking here? — and we’d all talk out loud about it, what we saw.” Taylor said. “Typically, it was after we were leaving yards out on the field.
“We thought they were zigging, when they were zagging. Then we’d go out to the practice field and get on the same page. That’s why you hear that cliché so much, because it’s true.
“There are a lot of little things that add up over the season that no one outside of the bubble sees. But I know Harry well enough, and I’ve seen enough tape of these guys early in the season that I would imagine heading down the stretch, these guys are going to re-hit their stride again.”