Noie: Notre Dame needs more out of its offensive line in CFP semifinal against Alabama
Pride and production and professional potential run too deep along the Notre Dame offensive line for those five to collectively look so lost again.
Heading into Friday’s 2021 CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One against top-ranked Alabama (11-0), Irish left tackle Liam Eichenberg didn’t have to work through another couple days of practice, or ponder it on the flight down to Dallas later in the week to know what’s coming.
Alabama owns an attacking, aggressive, talented defense that can cause problems. For Eichenberg, that’s OK.
“They’re going to line up (and) they’re going to hit you in the mouth,” Eichenberg said during Monday’s Zoom conference call for a half-dozen Irish offensive players. “It’s the type of football we like. It should be good.”
At the least, hopefully better than the last time out for Eichenberg and the Irish offensive line. Ten days ago, fourth-ranked Notre Dame (10-1) collided with Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte, N.C. Notre Dame thought it was ready to do what many figured couldn’t be done — beat Clemson for a second time in the same season and negate the narrative that Notre Dame’s never at its best in big games.
Turns out all the storylines stuck in a 34-10 Irish loss. The game got away from Notre Dame because, as the old football adage goes, the team that dominated the line of scrimmage also dominated the game. Clemson did, and did.
An Irish offensive front that features four current starters who’ve each played at least 37 college games and earned all-league honors (Eichenberg, left guard Aaron Banks and right guard Tommy Kraemer were first team selections while right tackle Robert Hainsey was a second-team pick), never got on the same page in Uptown Charlotte. A unit that has to work as one looked more like five individuals. That sent quarterback Ian Book scrambling out from under constant chaos.
Notre Dame lost more yards (62), than it gained rushing (a season low 44). It converted three of 12 chances on third down, tallied 263 yards total offense and allowed a season-high six sacks. A unit that had been so right most of the season, even after starting center/top communicator Jarrett Patterson was lost with a broken foot following the Nov. 14 win at Boston College, was all wrong.
The guys on the line couldn’t sustain blocks, couldn’t adequately decipher the defense (Clemson flattened its pass rush to eliminate Book’s potential escape/running lanes), couldn’t get the offense into the grind-it-out gear it needed to compete in that game.
“We were on all our stuff,” Kraemer said Monday. “I don’t know if we were missing details (but) there are a few things here or there.”
Those few things sent Notre Dame back to work last week. Back to basics. Kraemer said that good offensive line play is buried in the details. Since that loss, the O-line spent more time drilling on the practice field so that if/when those situations arise Friday and the Crimson Tide try to get tricky, the Irish can counter.
They also spent more time trying to better identify and adjust to the different looks and blitzes and formations and personnel and down and distance tendencies that Alabama prefers. They went live more often with third-down and red zone reps. All those elements got the Irish in trouble, and behind the first-down chains, against Clemson.
They can’t, as offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said Monday, get off schedule. The Irish stayed to that schedule and to that script early against Clemson. But a few failed third-down conversions and a couple missed red zone chances, and the game got away.
Better be elite
What does the offensive line have to do better for the Irish to be better in another big game? Everything. That’s not player speak. It’s College Football Playoff gospel for a group that’s one of three up for the position’s highest college honor (Joe Moore Award) for the second time in four seasons.
A former Irish assistant, Moore would be the first to bark about what didn’t happen against Clemson. The Irish would go to the practice field (outside, of course) to hear a whole batch of what fellow former Irish assistants referred to as “Moore-isms.”
Call the cops, these guys are stealing (tuition) money from the university!
Can you put your name and address on this piece of paper so I know where to send your (butt) back to?
Despite its struggles last time out, the veteran Notre Dame offensive line has Alabama coach Nick Saban’s attention.
“They don’t miss their targets very often,” Saban said Monday.
They missed against Clemson. They can’t miss again, not if they want to extend their season for one more game.
“It’s one of those things you kind of have to ante up on, because the last game, it didn’t work out well,” Eichenberg said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
And looking forward to establishing the way the Irish want to play. Maybe, have to play. Book can still be Book in the pocket, just with a little more patience and poise to make a few more plays than against Clemson. For Notre Dame to win a College Football Semifinal for the first time in school history during its second appearance, there’s no secret what awaits the offense.
“We need to run the ball,” said Eichenberg, an Outland Trophy finalist for the nation’s premier interior lineman. “It didn’t show up in the last game.”
Part of that was Clemson’s doing and some of it was self-inflicted. The Tigers showed some looks that the Irish didn’t see from them in the first meeting, and hadn’t found on film. It was different. It was difficult. Eichenberg said the Irish also took some “bad approaches” to blocking.
“The biggest thing is just staying on our guys,” he said. “We just need to finish our blocks.”
And get back to being the same Irish offensive line that helped rack up 362 rushing yards against Florida State and 319 passing yards against Pittsburgh and 557 total yards against Boston College. It starts with springing loose Kyren Williams. A 1,000-yard rusher (1,061), he was a non-factor against Clemson (15 carries, 50 yards).
After facing a Clemson defense that ranks ninth nationally against the run (99.8 ypg.), Notre Dame gets Alabama (12th nationally at 107.6). Williams is confident in an offensive line that has seen and done and dominated a lot through their careers. They weren’t good last time out; they will be next time out.
“I always trust my offensive linemen and know that they’re going to give me their everything on every down and I’m going to do the same for them,” Williams said. “It’s that mutual bond between us that you’re going to have to kill us to stop us.”
Come Friday evening, Notre Dame plans to still have a heartbeat. Only time, and maybe that Irish offensive line, will tell.