Hold the Line

Last season, after three games, the Notre Dame offensive line had given up 23 sacks. What a difference a year makes. Through the first three contests this time around, the Irish have only given up three — all of these coming last Saturday against Michigan State. It's clear that the unit is much improved, but there are still strides that are to be taken if the Irish want to win consistently.

Although opponents have not been able to bring Jimmy Clausen to the ground as much, the rushing attack has merely mustered 234 yards on 90 carries for a paltry 2.6 yards per carry. For all the talk before the season about the game plan to "pound the ball", it simply hasn't happened. For head coach Charlie Weis, the mental aspect of the offensive line is just as important as the talents they have as football players.

"I think that a lot of what you do offensively in the run game isn't just, just what your linemen can do, it's what the mentality of the guys that are going to be playing out there with you," Weis said. "And I think that as that's changed we'd try to get more into a combination of not having just a draw being our only run right there that's successful, being able to run inside zone and outside zone as well."

For offensive coordinator Mike Haywood, it's much simpler.

"They just have to hit them in the mouth," Haywood said without hesitation.

Eric Olsen, known for being one of the offensive line's most tenacious blockers couldn't agree more with his coach.

"We just have to go out there and hit them in the mouth," he repeated Haywood's words. "We have a lot of pride as a line, as a team, and we know when we messed up and we messed up so now it's time to hit them back."

Newly appointed left tackle, Mike Turkovich, has excelled at his novel role in the unit. After being a backup guard, the Bedford, Pa. native has stepped into his responsibilities and responded well. Through the first three contests, Turkovich has yet to allow a sack, and has been penalized minimally. He too concurs that the offensive line must create an aggressive style of play.

"Yeah, definitely," he agreed. "I think last week what happened was that we came out and we played a little slow. The main thing about being an offensive lineman to be able to run the ball you've got to go out there and not worry about not playing hesitant. Last week in the first half, their run defense slowed us down."

Part of the reason as to why the Irish rushing attack looking as stagnant as it did was because the Spartans came out in some defensive schemes that the offense was not prepared for.

"It definitely affected us," Turkovich said of the different looks. "Because we came out and they just put out some defenses that we haven't practiced against. We had a bunch of guys and we should have been able to adjust to it on the fly, and I think what happened was that we got hesitant and we started playing slow like last year, and you saw what happened."

Olsen echoed the same sentiment, calling it, "paralysis by analysis".

"Coming out in the first series, Michigan State jumped out into a scheme that we hadn't expected and we hadn't seen on film all year," he said. "It gave us that paralysis by analysis. Definitely to get the run game going, if you're an offensive lineman, if you're pushing people off the ball, regardless, you're going to get yards."

Much of the enigma of this 2008 Notre Dame team comes with the identity of the squad as either a rushing oriented squad, or one that prefers the pass. Either way, the offensive line is comfortable practicing either.

"Yeah, definitely," Olsen said. "We're just trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Obviously we've got pretty good positions skill players so we're not going to always throw the ball, and run the ball and use all our weapons. Really it goes by what the game is going to dictate for what we're going to do as an offense. We're still trying to get all the kinks worked out. We've only played three games so far so we're just trying to get things going."

Haywood views the situation as one in which his players simply have to concentrate on the task at hand, and worry about the play in front of them, rather than to complicate schemes.

"I think the main thing that we work on is consistency," Haywood said. "When you move the ball up and down the field and get in the red zone, and you have a lack of success, so we talk about focusing on one play at a time. What's the most important thing? That play that happened previously, not the play that you think is coming up next because you know by game plan what the next red zone call is. Focus on the one play at hand, and handle the situation and we made some mistakes in the last game that really cost us the game."

In order to do this, Haywood believes that his squad is straying away from what they have been drilling in practice — fundamentals.

"Well I think that we need to become more fundamentally sound in the things that we're asking them to do," Haywood said. "I believe that it's an everyday process. With the ultimate faith that we have is that we can run the football, so we have to get better fundamentally and with technique."

Although there has been a fair amount of criticism hurled at the line for the lack of a potent running attack, Olsen isn't fazed, nor is he disappointed. At the end of the day, in his opinion, the Irish still won two contests, but they need to correct what is necessary to overcome last Saturday's loss.

"The first two games, we won, so we weren't disappointed at all," he said. "We beat Michigan 35-17, no matter what we had, whether it was 100 yards, that's in no way disappointing because we won that game. What's disappointing is that we weren't able to get it going right in the beginning against Michigan State. I have confidence in the guys and we're all working hard, everybody across the board, so we'll get it going."

Headed into its fourth game of the season, the time has come for Notre Dame to get it going and standing in its way is Purdue. Come Saturday, it will be obvious to see if the offensive line has reached its potential. To do this, all one has to do is check the Boilermakers' mouths after the game.

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