Notre Dame's offensive line can finish the regular season with a statement at Stanford
SOUTH BEND — The last time Josh Lugg spoke to reporters, Notre Dame’s offensive line was in the middle of one of its worst stretches of head coach Brian Kelly’s Irish tenure.
Notre Dame won its first three games of the season despite the underwhelming performance of a group that’s normally a strength of Kelly’s best teams at Notre Dame. Tough days for the Irish offensive line were still ahead with games against Wisconsin and Cincinnati, but its starting right tackle was tasked with having to explain the struggles to reporters.
“I had a much different attitude,” Lugg said with a laugh Monday.
It’s a little bit easier to talk about Notre Dame’s issues now with the AP No. 5/CFP No. 6 Irish (10-1) one win away from finishing the regular season with six consecutive victories. The back half of Notre Dame’s schedule came with less challenging defenses, but the improvement of the Irish offensive line has helped the team peak in November.
After Notre Dame lost to Cincinnati, 24-13, on Oct. 2, the Irish totaled only 404 rushing yards and allowed 22 sacks through five games. Notre Dame ranked among the worst in the FBS in both categories. Those first five weeks tested the resolve of Notre Dame’s offensive line.
“They were frustrating for all of us, obviously,” Lugg said. “We weren’t competing to the standard. We weren’t doing what we needed to do. We weren’t protecting the guys behind us. It started with me.”
The right side of Notre Dame’s offensive line, which consisted of Marshall graduate transfer Cain Madden and graduate senior Lugg, looked more inconsistent than experienced. The left side of the line worked through injuries and miscues before freshman left tackle Joe Alt and junior left guard Andrew Kristofic emerged as the answers against Virginia Tech. The 32-29 win in Blacksburg, Va., became a turning point of the season.
Including that victory on Oct. 9, the Irish have rushed for 1,254 yards and allowed only nine sacks in the last six games. Notre Dame hasn’t rushed for fewer than 150 yards during that span. In the first five games of the season, the Irish didn’t total more than 132 rushing yards in any game.
The box scores have looked a lot better as a result of better execution along the offensive line.
“I talked about it was a lot of small details that we needed to fix,” Lugg said. “These last couple of weeks we’ve seen that. You’re not seeing huge changes on what we’re doing other than we’re fixing some of the details. What that has been able to do is put (running backs) Kyren (Williams) and Logan Diggs and Audric (Estime) in great positions to do what they do best, which is yards after contact and making runs that are incredible.”
Lugg and Madden, who was a second-team All-American last season, developed chemistry as Madden settled into the new challenges at Notre Dame. The repetition together, which needed to come in games and not just practice, finally produced offensive line harmony and defensive line harm.
“He’s playing really free right now,” Lugg said. “When we talk Saturday mornings before a game, it’s like, ‘Let’s go out there. We’re going to execute and use great fundamentals. But let’s go hit somebody and move guys off the ball.’
“Sometimes when you’re so bombarded with fundamentals, details and techniques, you kind of lose track of just driving this guy off the ball.”
One more year at Notre Dame?
Lugg could still return to Notre Dame next season.
The extra eligibility granted by the NCAA for athletes who played through the COVID-19 pandemic would allow Lugg a sixth season with the Irish. Lugg said Monday he plans to make a decision “probably this next week.”
Lugg started considering the possibility during Notre Dame’s bye week in October.
“There’s been a lot of conversations happening, especially in the last two weeks,” Lugg said.
The numerous conversations have included Kelly, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, agents or Lugg’s family.
Lugg’s closest friends on the offensive line left Notre Dame last season for the NFL. Both he and center Jarrett Patterson had more left to prove for the Irish. Now with new relationships forming this season, Lugg and Patterson, a senior, could both return to continue to provide leadership for the next generation of Notre Dame offensive linemen.
It’s a pretty frequent topic of conversation between Lugg and Patterson, whose lockers are across from each other.
“We both live in The Gug (Guglielmino Athletics Complex) now,” Lugg said. “We don’t have much academic work. We’ll watch film and sit in The Gug and get treatment together. We talk about it quite a bit.”
Notre Dame’s offensive linemen have repeatedly chosen to lengthen their Notre Dame careers since former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was able to convince guys like Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey to stay when they could have left sooner.
“If I have the opportunity to change younger guys’ lives in the program and do more for this university, it’s not about what the university can do for me at this point,” Lugg said. “It’s what can I do for the university to pay it back? The resources that have been given to me to be able to succeed, how do I use those to help these new guys coming in?”
What Lugg may have to do if he stays at Notre Dame is move to guard. Freshman left tackle Joe Alt has made a pretty strong case for manning one of the tackle positions next season. Fellow freshman Blake Fisher made a similarly strong case in the preseason as he won the starting left tackle job for the season opener before suffering a knee injury that has kept him sidelined since then.
Lugg joked that maybe he and Fisher could play rock-paper-scissors to decide who would play guard. The 6-foot-7, 305-pound started one game at guard and two games at center in 2020.
“If anything,” Lugg said, “my Notre Dame career has been defined as whatever the coaches need me to play, I’ll go play it.”
A fitting end to the regular season
Lugg couldn’t have started Notre Dame’s 55-0 victory over Georgia Tech last Saturday in much worse fashion. The Irish were in great shape to start the game with a 51-yard opening kick return by Chris Tyree and a 38-yard pass from quarterback Jack Coan to wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
Then Lugg helped Notre Dame moved backward. On first-and-goal from the 10-yard line, Lugg let defensive end Keion White beat him to the inside. In order to prevent White from sacking Coan, Lugg tackled him for a holding penalty, which was only declined because blitzing linebacker Quez Jackson sacked Coan from the left side.
Then on third-and-goal from the 17, defensive end Jordan Domineck beat Lugg around the edge to sack Coan and force an Irish field goal.
“First drive was very unacceptable,” Lugg said. “It was not even close to the standard and it was very, very frustrating. I go to the sidelines and I was just like I need to mentally reset right now and do my job. Because this is not acceptable.
“As soon as I got through that and changed my mindset. It’s go time right now. Everything that happened, it happened. Now it’s how do I execute? I played better throughout.”
Early in Lugg’s career, he might not have bounced back so well from a poor start. But he credited the mental toughness that’s fostered in Kelly’s program for teaching him how to bounce back in the middle of a game.
Lugg’s recovery later in the game included the key block on a 20-yard touchdown catch for Diggs on a screen pass. But the block wasn’t supposed to be made by Lugg in the first place. Madden was supposed to help spring Diggs free, but the defensive lineman crashed inside on Madden. Lugg realized what was happening and took Madden’s place.
“It was a really heady play by Lugg, because he became the lead player on it,” Kelly said.
Diggs set up the block perfectly too. Even though he was farther downfield than Lugg when he caught the pass from Coan, Diggs waited for Lugg to get in front of him and blast safety Tariq Carpenter to clear a path.
“He knows there’s supposed to be an offensive lineman out there, so he kind of slowed down,” Lugg said. “I was screaming at him. I don’t know if he heard or anything. I was like, ‘Hold up! Hold up!” I was coming and he set that block up pretty easily.”
Lugg joked that Madden was mad at him for stealing the glory. But if the two weren’t on the same page, the screen may have been wrecked.
In Saturday’s regular season finale at Stanford (8 p.m. EST on FOX), Lugg said he wants to eliminate some of the mistakes he made in pass protection last week. He believes Georgia Tech’s defenders were able to easily predict his pass sets, which allowed them to put him in tough positions.
The Irish might not need to pass much to beat the Cardinal (3-8). Stanford’s run defense entered the week ranked No. 127 out of 130 in the FBS for allowing 241.7 rushing yards per game. Two of its last three opponents have rushed for more than 350 yards: 441 for Utah on Nov. 5 and 352 for California last Saturday.
The path to a seventh-straight Notre Dame win seems pretty clear. A dominant rushing performance would be a fitting end to the regular season for an offensive line that’s come to be defined by its growth.
“Being able to compete and get that victory on Saturday at the end of a season like this, it would mean a lot to us,” Lugg said. “It will also give us some confidence going into bowl prep so that we know we have a full 12 games under our belt.”
And if things play out right for the Irish, just maybe that bowl game is the College Football Playoff.
“We’re going to end the season with a big ole stamp and let everybody know that we’re not here to play,” Williams said. “For me personally, that’s going to give me all the confidence in the world to go into the postseason to know and dominate. If they do give us a chance into the playoffs, we have to do it. We have to make the most of it.”
HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. STANFORD
Who: AP No. 5 Notre Dame (10-1) vs. Stanford (3-8)
Kickoff: Saturday at 8 p.m. EST
Where: Stanford Stadium; Palo Alto, Calif.
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 17
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.