One of the most frustrating aspects of the 2007 season for Notre Dame fans was the inability to get any true evaluation of the young skill players because the offensive line played so poorly. There was either nowhere for the running backs to run or no time for Jimmy Clausen or Evan Sharpley to throw to the receivers.
While the Irish offensive line certainly did not dominate the point of attack by any means in its opener on Saturday, especially with seven San Diego State defensive linemen injured, Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis felt that the Irish line performed adequately.
"Not to make excuses, but run game stats can be skewed a little bit as well. As you get to 3rd and 1 runs, you get the end of the game runs and then you get a negative run by botched field goal snap that goes on the run totals," Weis said on Sunday. "At the end of the day I take all of those things out of there and say what's the regular, in the field of play game, how did it go? And we were averaging over four yards a carry in that situation and usually that turns out to be winning football."
Taking out just the eight-yard loss that was given to Eric Maust on that field goal attempt in the second quarter, Notre Dame rushed 33 times for 113 yards. Still not exactly pounding it as Notre Dame said it wanted to.
But the one thing that Irish line did do was keep Clausen upright. After setting a NCAA record by allowing 58 sacks in 2007 - including nine in the season-opener to Georgia Tech - the Irish offensive line gave up no sacks in 34 pass attempts and Clausen was knocked down just once.
"They didn't give up any sacks after the high volume that we were dealing with, that's a good place to start," said Weis.
It was the first time Notre Dame finished a game without giving up a sack since the 2005 win over Navy.
Clausen was flushed out of the pocket on the third down play before Brandon Walker's missed field goal in the first quarter. Clausen was almost sacked, but was able to get the ball away and although it did not reach the line of scrimmage, the referees ruled that Golden Tate was in the vicinity. It looked as though Clausen could have been trying to get it deep to Michael Floyd, who made his collegiate debut on the play and appeared to have a step on his defender.
The other time Clausen was flushed from the pocket was a third down play with under four minutes to play in the half. Clausen again threw the ball away, this time out of bounds. With the increased time in the pocket and a healthy arm, Clausen was able to showcase the zip that has not been seen consistently since his days at Oaks Christian High School.
"We're confident in Jimmy and our receivers that if we give them time they're going to make a play," offensive lineman Sam Young said. "We've got to much talent on this team to let it go to waste on something like a hurry or a pressure or a sack."
Meanwhile the staff addition of Jon Tenuta, who was the defensive coordinator for last year's Georgia Tech team, brought with it expectations of the Irish defense transforming into a hawkish unit. That is exactly what Notre Dame fans saw even if its full impact did not translate to the stat sheet.
Defensively, Notre Dame had only one sack in the game, but had four quarterback hurries and four passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. The aggressive approach never allowed the Aztecs to get in a comfort zone and for the most part, San Diego State kept it short because Lindley simply did not have the time to take many shots down field.
"I think that (the pressure) made (San Diego State), made them get into a throwing game and a three-step throwing game for most of the game," said Weis. "Now granted we only got the one sack by Mo, but there were a lot of pressures, a lot of balls tipped. There was a lot of duress right there and a lot of those pass breakups were caused by pressure on the quarterback."
The defense's one sack came on a second down play with 3:22 left in the half. On 2nd and 10, the Irish brought heat with linebacker Brian Smith blitzing inside and Maurice Crum looping around to follow behind. San Diego State was able to pick up Smith, but Crum had a clear shot on Ryan Lindley with Kerry Neal applying pressure from the outside.
For all of their aggressiveness, the Irish did a good job keeping San Diego State in front of them. Aside from a couple of shovel passes, the one long play that the Aztecs did have was Darren Mougey's 43-yard catch-and-run to set up the game's first score. The Irish brought pressure on that play with Crum coming up the middle and Sergio Brown blitzing off the edge, but what made the gain possible was a busted coverage between Smith and Kyle McCarthy.
"They did make more plays in the passing game, two of them were shovel passes," Weis said. "I think for a good portion of the game, when a guy throws the ball 55-60 times and completes less than half of them usually something good is going to happen."
San Diego State's second touchdown of the day on the 15-yard score from Lindley to Mougey was more of a case of the Aztecs taking advantage of the Irish pressure as Notre Dame brought seven defenders after Lindley, including free safety David Bruton. Lindley made a perfect read and a beautiful throw to Mougey on a corner route over the head of Brown, who was left with no help over the top.
But those kinds of plays are unavoidable when a defense blitzes as much as the Irish will, the key is to keep those big hitters to a minimum.
"We'll get better each week out and we obviously intend to keep bringing them," Weis said. "The one thing that we'll have to continue working on is (the opponent) going into that three-step drop mentality and just try to drop it down and get rid of the ball quick."
If Notre Dame is going to stick with the goal to control games with the run on offense then there is no doubt that the Irish offensive line is going to have to improve both mentally and physically. Earlier in the week, Weis said that all of the injuries to San Diego State's defensive line would make the Aztecs unpredictable and he was right.
"The number one front that they run, I don't know if they ran once the whole game," Weis said. "They put in a lot of three bubble linebackers, which they hadn't been doing…(In the past) they had been an under team. When they did bring heat, the heat was usually from the strong side. Almost all the pressures (on Saturday) came from the weak side, almost a weak corner or weak safety coming the whole day."
Based on the performance against the Aztecs, Notre Dame is going to have its work cut out for it in order to pound the ball against Michigan, which boasts one of the top front sevens that the Irish will see this year. Still, if the offensive line can continue to protect Clausen against a healthy defensive line the way it did against the decimated San Diego State front then at least the Irish will have a chance to use the pass to stay in games, but that is not the plan.
"You can't count on a two-minute operation in the fourth quarter to bail you out on a weekly basis," Weis said.