Vorel: If Notre Dame's offensive line really is dominant, prove it in prime time
We’ve seen the potential.
You’ve heard the praise.
It’s time for consistent production.
But first, about that potential: in last weekend’s 49-16 trampling of Temple, Notre Dame’s offense rushed for 422 yards and 9.6 yards per carry. Three Irish players — in this case, running backs Josh Adams (19 carries for 161 yards and two TDs) and Dexter Williams (six for 124 and one TD) and quarterback Brandon Wimbush (12 for 106 and one TD) — hit triple digits in the same game for the first time since at least 1954.
When Notre Dame’s sports information department can’t even pinpoint the last time something happened, you know it must be significant.
Granted, the Notre Dame offensive line repeatedly succeeded against a Temple team tasked with replacing the majority of its front seven. But details aside, this was dominant.
First came the points.
Then, of course, the praise.
“That offensive line is pretty special,” Wimbush said in the wake of a victory in his first career start. “I don’t know how many offensive lines there have been like this one at this university. I know there’s been some great ones and some great guys, but this unit I think is really special.”
Added second-year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who just-so-happened to be Alabama’s defensive coordinator when the Crimson Tide scrubbed the Irish in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game: “The backs are big and physical. I mean, bigger than our backs, and physical. They run downhill at you.
“Like I said, they have four offensive linemen who have played for a long time and they are as good looking an O-line as you will play — ever.”
OK, let’s take a step back. Ever is a heavy word, and not one this group has earned. Plus, opposing coaches hand out pregame compliments like they’re candy bars on Halloween, or like Oprah Winfrey slinging cars at her studio audience.
Notre Dame’s offensive line is good. We know that.
Can it be consistently dominant?
It’s still too early to tell.
“I think each year you kind of always believe and have the confidence that you can pull it off as an offensive line,” graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey said last week. “The five of us up front want the game on our shoulders. We want to be able to have (offensive coordinator) Chip Long call run plays when the game is on the line.
“I think that we're very capable of doing that.”
OK, here’s my hesitation: we’ve heard all of this before.
Take Aug. 30, 2016, for example. In his weekly press conference prior to Notre Dame’s season opener at Texas, head coach Brian Kelly expressed a supreme confidence and insistence in his team’s ability to run the ball.
“What do you feel strongly or confident about as you head into the weekend with this team?” Kelly was asked.
“(I feel) strongly or confident that, you know, no matter what happens, we're running the football,” he responded.
No matter what happens? Well, as it turned out, a lot happened — most of it negative. And in a 4-8 debacle, the Irish didn’t run the football consistently, or consistently well.
In 2016, Notre Dame finished 97th nationally in rushing attempts per game (36.5), 80th in rushing (163.3 yards per game) and 62nd in yards per carry (4.47).
So forgive Notre Dame fans for not taking one pristine performance — and it was mighty impressive, don’t get me wrong — as a guarantee of future production.
On Saturday, though, the Irish can take another step towards ever. For just the second time in school history, Notre Dame will meet SEC power Georgia. The Bulldogs bring 10 returning defensive starters from a unit that finished 36th in rushing defense (143.7 yards per game) a season ago. Last weekend, in an impressive 31-10 victory over Appalachian State, Smart’s squad held the Mountaineers to 136 rushing yards and 4.3 yards per carry.
No offense to Temple, but these Bulldogs are bigger, faster, stronger, deeper.
You think you’re a dominant offensive line? “Really special,” as Wimbush put it?
Prove it in prime time.
“It's going to be exciting for us up front because we have an offensive coordinator now that trusts us and means what he says when he says, ‘We're going to put the ball in your hands, or the game in your hands,’ ” McGlinchey said. “We know he means it, and we know he wants that himself.
“We're really confident in our abilities. We've worked really, really hard for the last nine months on giving him the confidence in order to do that and giving ourselves the confidence in order to do that, and I think that it just comes down to execution.
“When the play is called, we've got to do our job just like everybody else does, and we're confident that us doing our job is better than everybody else.”
Everybody else. No exceptions. That means Temple. That means Georgia. That means Boston College, Michigan State, USC and Stanford. That means home games and road games, against the ACC and the Pac-12 and, yes, the SEC.
That means running often, and running wild — no matter what happens.