Lesar: Too many yards missing from Notre Dame offense

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Fifty-eight fewer yards a game is a big production deficit for the Notre Dame football team’s rushing attack.

Lose that kind of real estate in one aspect of the Irish offense, and the rest of the attack is thrown out of kilter.

That’s where the Irish are heading into Saturday’s game against Miami.

Last season, with an offensive line buoyed by future NFL players Ronnie Stanley (left tackle) and Nick Martin (center) – along with Steve Elmer (right guard), Mike McGlinchey (right tackle) and Quenton Nelson (left guard) – the Irish averaged 208 yards on the ground.

That combination was good most of the year and dominant at times, as ND rolled up 10 victories.

This year, with McGlinchey (left tackle), Nelson (left guard) and newcomers Sam Mustipher (center), Colin McGovern (right guard) and Alex Bars (right tackle), it’s down to 150.

“A lot of (the difference) was, at the start of (last) season, we had 100-plus starts coming in with only three different guys (Stanley, Martin and Elmer) in our offensive line,” said McGlinchey, a 6-foot-8, 310-pound senior. “This year we had 25 or something like that. We're young. Not that I'm making an excuse for the offensive line. But it's one of those things that comes with experience. We had (an NFL No. 6) overall pick (Stanley) and a second-round pick (Martin) leading us up front last year. And we had a 30-game starter that was the third guy (Elmer).

“(This season has had) growing pains. We're going to be OK. We've got the talent to do it and we've been getting better. We've seen a lot of things thrown at us that has been … (defenses) wanted to stop the running game first, and that's fine, because we have a lot of talent across the board with quarterback, running back and receivers.”

“You make your mistakes, you learn from them, you get better,” said Bars, a 6-6, 320-pound junior. “You work outside of practice all week to get better. Our communication has gotten so much better.”

That lack of experience will make the Miami game that much tougher. The Hurricanes lead the nation with 71 tackles for loss and are among the country’s best with 23 sacks.

That gives an idea as to the aggressiveness the Hurricane defense will apply to the somewhat fragile Irish line. 

Head coach Brian Kelly said he’s seen progress, but whether that improvement directly correlates into a better running game or fewer sacks (the Irish have allowed 19), remains to be seen.

“Progress is relative to what (fans and the media) see and what (coaches) see, right?” said Kelly. “Progress is always going to be defined based upon winning from one week to the next.

“But for me, progress will be maintaining a double-team and not splitting a double-team. You know, maintaining a block back on the offensive line. You know, squeezing on a five-man protection instead of jumping out on a five-man protection.”

Miami’s penchant for finding its way into the backfield will pose a particular problem for the guys entrusted with holding the fort.

“It's just a matter of – especially up front – you have to come out with a little bit more control,” McGlinchey said. “More things that are going to be thrown at you that aren't base alignments. They do that, no matter the situation. They really are trying to pressure you.

“They don't throw a lot of pressure, but they do a lot of different stunts and movements up front, if you're not prepared for it or in the right mindset about how you approach your job, it can cause some problems for some offenses.”

“You’ve gotta go back to basics,” Bars said of the preparation for Miami. “Fundamentals can save you on all things. Get your feet right. Get your hands right.

“Focus on your fundamentals, and do what we do best.”

Or, at least, find a comfort zone and hope it helps.

Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson (56) tries to hold off NC State’s Justin Jones (27) during the Notre Dame-NC State NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN