For all the superfluous factors that often dominate game-week coverage – distance, distractions and motivation, among others – the Fiesta Bowl will be a war won or lost in the trenches.
Both programs pride themselves on being offensive line-driven squads, and Notre Dame quarterback Deshone Kizer certainly knows where his offense’s bread is buttered.
“When they’re rolling, we’re all rolling,” he said of the Irish offensive line.
Led by offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, Notre Dame’s group of big men includes left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a potential top 10 pick in the next NFL Draft, and center Nick Martin, who is viewed as a high-end talent himself. The unit was one of six finalists for the Joe Moore Award given to the nation’s best offensive line.
The Irish averaged 469.4 yards of total offense in the regular season – well above Ohio State’s average of 428.9 yards – and there’s no question about which unit powered them to such prolific numbers.
“They’re the engine that makes this whole thing go,” associate head coach Mike Denbrock said. “When we’re able to run the football effectively, which means keep the defense off-balance, stay ahead of the chains, that’s all because of what we do up front on the offensive line. They’re really the key to this game this week. There’s no question in my mind that if we can control the line of scrimmage and do what we need to do it’s going to open up a lot of avenues for us.”
Directed by the redshirt freshman Kizer, Notre Dame’s offense was relatively balanced over the course of 12 games. The Irish ran the ball 56 percent of the time and passed 44 percent of the time, while passing yards accounted for 54 percent of the total offense to 46 on the ground.
Although it evens out over time, Kizer said when the offensive line is at its best the Irish can bully teams with a single-minded approach on any given drive and then shift gears quickly.
“Football’s like a game of chess,” he said. “You go one way, and something else opens up. When the offensive line is as dominant as it is for us running the ball and making sure we’re protected when we’re passing the ball, it allows us to open up lanes that most people aren’t allowed to open up. We can go down on a drive and run the ball 95 percent of the time and then the next drive come out and throw the ball 95 percent of the time. To have a dominant offensive line is truly the base and the root of trying to go out there and trying to get first downs that turn into touchdowns.”
Both Martin and Stanley spoke of the joy they feel when the unit is operating on all cylinders and enabling the offense to carve up opposing defenses. Perhaps that comes from the knowledge that they’re the straw that stirs a pretty potent drink, although Stanley prefers a different analogy.
“I’d say we’re the motor to everything going,” he said.