Looking For A Spark

With the Notre Dame cap on his head stained and soaked by sweat, Irish offensive line coach John Latina told the media, he hasn't seen any indicators from his unit that they're ready to breakout from their recent struggles. Through two games, a major lack of consistency by the starters in the trenches, is the main reason why Notre Dame ranks last in the nation in rushing yardage and sacks allowed.

But a spark could happen at any time. That's what's keeping Latina and his line optimistic.

"We're working hard at that on a daily basis, but we've not been very good on offense, and the offensive line, it starts there," Latina explained, talking about being more consistent. Notre Dame returned to the practice field Tuesday, following its 31-10 loss at No. 11 Penn State, where they played in front of a hostile crowd of 110,000-plus. "We've got a ways to go. But hopefully, you never know how quick you can change those situations, and hopefully it will be this week."

Latina is hoping so, as the Irish (0-2) head to Ann Arbor on Saturday to face another hungry team in Michigan (0-2).

What makes Latina and his line think that the situation could change quickly is that, mixed in with the procedure penalties and blown assignments, believe it or not, with a team that has rushed for minus-eight yards in two games, there has been some bright spots. It's just a matter of making plays with regularity.

"Obviously it's not nearly good enough yet, our play as a unit, but at times there is some better things," Latina said. "There is just not nearly enough. We just have to make much more improvement from week two to week three, than we did from one to two. I think playing in a pretty hostile environment with some guys who really hadn't played in that environment before, I'm sure that will help for this particular game. Obviously it hurt us some last game, but hopefully that will carry over and help us some this particular game.

In two games, the Irish have rushed for just 147 yards, but with so many negative plays including the 15 sacks, runners and quarterbacks have been hit for a combined loss of 155 yards.

"When you're not playing well at all, there's so many things that go on," Latina said. "I wish it was as easy as pointing to this was a problem or this was a problem. It's just the inconsistent play by different people at different times. That's where we have to coach them, we have to get them better, and we have to bring them along and improve them and make them more consistent.

"What gives you hope is when you get them in the meeting room and they're eager to learn. They're eager to watch the tape. They're eager to study their opponent. And they go on the field and have a good attitude, that's what gives you hope we're starting to head in the right direction."

Head coach Charlie Weis, Latina, and the players themselves didn't think it would take two games for a line with three new starters to gel. Asked Tuesday afternoon if there were any bright spots on the offensive line, Weis pointed to fifth-year senior captain and center John Sullivan, saying he thought he has played "excellent." So obviously, the four guys around him, guards, Michael Turkovich and Dan Wenger, and tackles Sam Young and Paul Duncan haven't played nearly consistent enough.

The speed of the game was a huge struggle for the linemen in the 33-3 season-opening loss to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets blitzed all day from all over the field, sacking three different Irish quarterbacks a combined nine times. Freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen, making his first-career start against Penn State, was dropped six more times.

Two games in, the new guys on the offensive line are getting a better understanding of what they have to do to be successful on game day at this level. They thought they were doing everything at a high level, but they‘ve learned.

"We realize you just can't go into the game week, and you can't be lackadaisical," said Turkovich, who with Wenger and Duncan, are the new starters. "In the classroom, you have to study when you're looking at the plays, the formations. I think we really realized that. It took two weeks, but I think we're getting a lot better, and we're a lot more focused this week."

Those guys need to be, because now they have some competition breathing down their necks. Out of the group of sophomore guards Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel, and freshmen tackles Matt Romine and Taylor Dever, a couple of those guys could be on the verge of earning some game reps if the starters continue to falter.

"Yeah I think they're getting better, I think some of those guys are getting better, which you expect at this time of the year," Latina said of the reserves. "Hopefully it would've been earlier, but it didn't surprise me that it didn't happen earlier. The whole thing with the twos is, the bottom line is this: You go out and practice, if you play well the week of practice, then your chances of playing increase. Up until this point, I didn't see that happening. I thought I saw some of that today. Hopefully the film will reconfirm that."

One thing the film will confirm is that the offensive line played hard in practice on Tuesday. Nobody has been sulking or playing with less intensity because the team is currently struggling.

"I thought today they came ready," Latina said. "They were great in meetings. They were really good on the field in terms of their attitude and their willingness. Usually when guys lose confidence, they lose a little bit of spark and a little bit of pizzazz to them, and I don't see that happening."

Latina just sees a lot of sweat.

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