Notre Dame's offensive line looking for better cohesion, consistency against Virginia Tech
Notre Dame’s offensive line wants to see through the same set of eyes.
It’s a bit of coach speak designed to stress the importance of all five players recognizing the defense, processing it and letting it inform how the offensive line blocks on any given play.
Yet during Notre Dame’s 45-14 loss at Michigan last weekend, that set of eyes may have been bruised and swollen shut. The Irish offensive line was outplayed by Michigan’s defense. The Wolverines looked faster, stronger and smarter than Notre Dame’s offensive line.
It wasn’t much better for Notre Dame’s defensive line against Michigan’s offensive line. That’s why head coach Brian Kelly harped on physicality in the days following the lopsided loss.
“We weren’t able to control the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s about the physicality that we have to get back. We’ve had it. We did not have it in this game. For us to improve our lot, as it relates to winning football games, we have to be able to bring a physicality to our play. We’ll be working on that this week.”
There’s no greater failing for an offensive lineman than playing without physicality. If he’s not playing physical, a lineman can’t accomplish much.
So how does an offensive line come out and play without physicality?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” said former Irish captain and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey.
McGlinchey — who’s nearing recovery from a knee injury that sidelined him for the past four weeks with the San Francisco 49ers — watched Notre Dame’s loss to Michigan with bewilderment. He’s not quite sure what happened. It’s a similar feeling to how he felt after Notre Dame lost to Miami 41-8 in 2017 with McGlinchey playing left tackle.
While admitting that Kelly has a better feel for the current team than himself, McGlinchey suggested that physicality alone doesn’t explain the poor offensive line play.
“Defenses present different challenges,” McGlinchey said. “What the Michigan Wolverines did was unexpected. I don’t think it was getting out-physicaled. You just have to realize what you’re going up against and you have to play better ball and execute better.”
Starting right tackle Robert Hainsey, a junior and captain, conceded that Michigan’s defense found ways to put Notre Dame’s offense in bad looks at times.
“That’s definitely some of it,” Hainsey said. “Our goal now is to make sure we don’t end up in those situations, and we’re just ready for whatever Virginia Tech’s going to have, being able to adjust to it and make the play work no matter what.”
With the Hokies (5-2) coming into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC), the Irish will play a third straight game against an opponent they beat last season. The lessons from last year’s 45-23 victory over Virginia Tech can be applied this week. But the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Hainsey expects long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster to have some wrinkles prepared for the No. 16 Irish (5-2).
“Their scheme, it is what it is,” Hainsey said. “He’s going to do what he’s done his whole career. But you always are ready for new nuances within the scheme because they always come. They’re always going to bring something out against us that we haven’t seen before. Expecting the unexpected is big.”
Hainsey, who has played in all 33 games of his Notre Dame career and started 21 of them, learned early in his freshman season that opposing defenses regularly threw different looks at Notre Dame. The tendencies shown on film didn’t always match what happened on Saturdays.
That’s when the motto of seeing the defense through one set of eyes comes into play.
“We just need to, if we see something, communicate it,” Hainsey said. “Once we have it communicated, we can get it drawn up and we can talk through and say ‘Hey, if we see this again, we know we need to do this. We need to slide to this guy or we need to bypass this guy and go to the linebacker.’ Anything like that. It’s big for all of us to be on the same page.”
Michigan used one stunt with repeated success against Notre Dame. On multiple occasions, defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson would line up as a defensive tackle on one side of the line and then swing around the two other defensive linemen to attack the opposite edge of Notre Dame’s offensive line. On three occasions, Hutchinson ended up pressuring quarterback Ian Book on a dropback using that stunt.
In pass protection, Hainsey said that stunt should be easy to handle. But for whatever reason, it worked for the Wolverines.
“It’s a pretty common stunt you’ll see,” Hainsey said. “If you’re locked into what they’re doing, you’ll see their tips. You’re able to pass it off to the next guy and get off as soon as you can.”
Nothing was easy for Notre Dame against Michigan. The Irish pass protection allowed Book to be pressured at the highest rate of the season. The Wolverines pressured Book on 38.7 percent of his dropbacks, which nearly matched the pressure Clemson put on Book in the College Football Playoff semifinal last season (38.8 percent).
Notre Dame also put up its worst rushing performance of the season with 1.5 yards per carry at Michigan two weeks after posting its best rushing performance of the season with 6.9 yards per carry and two touchdowns in the 30-27 win over USC.
How does Hainsey explain the difference between those two games?
“I’d say the numbers pretty much speak for itself,” Hainsey said. “We just didn’t play as well as we could.”
Consistency, particularly in the running game, has eluded Notre Dame’s offense this season. Offensive coordinator Chip Long had such little faith in the running game at Georgia earlier this season, that Notre Dame recorded only 14 rushes in the game and two of them came on Book scrambling on designed passes.
Yet the 46 rushing yards Notre Dame produced against the Bulldogs is only one less than what Notre Dame managed at Michigan last weekend on 31 rushing attempts.
A lot of moving pieces contribute to running game success. But it starts up front with the offensive line. Within that unit, McGlinchey said, consistency comes from coaching and leadership from players. That’s the only way five different players can move in unison.
“In terms of consistency, you have to find that individually first,” McGlinchey said. “Each guy has to play consistent football together. Then it’s just putting the work in as the five of you together, watching film together, drilling out together, doing all your extra work as much as you can.
“If there’s something that you need to get fixed, you have to fix it and you have to lean on the guys next to you to help you.”
The Irish will have to strive for consistency without veteran right guard Tommy Kraemer for the next few weeks. Kraemer, who sprained the MCL in his left knee during the second quarter of the Michigan game, could be sidelined for the final five games of the regular season. Graduate student Trevor Ruhland, who started five games at right and left guard last season, filled in for Kraemer against Michigan.
“We’re very cohesive together,” Hainsey said of Ruhland. “I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat. He knows. He’s been here longer than anyone in that room. He knows the offense forward, backward, up and down. He’s ready and he’s excited. We’re all excited to just keep rolling with him.”
In the aftermath of a lackluster performance, the process hasn’t changed for Notre Dame’s offensive line The group knows what needs to be done, Hainsey said. It all starts with preparation.
The offensive line has a motto for that too. The acronym “EAT” stands for effort, assignment and technique. Those are the requirements for successful offensive line play.
After a poor performance last week, the Irish have to be pretty hungry for success. They can only start to prove last week was a fluke with success on Saturday.
“Effort is first and foremost,” Hainsey said. “That’s where physicality comes in. You have to go play as hard as you can. You have to be physical. You have to hit people as hard as you can and dominate your blocks.
“Then you go to your assignment. You have to know what you’re doing and where to be, when to be there and who you’re blocking.
“Technique, you need to know how to do it using our technique and fundamentals that we’ve been coached to the best of our ability.
“That’s really how you can get after people. It’s all those things combined.”