More cohesive offensive line keys turnaround for Notre Dame attack
Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen had a rude welcome to college football last season. In his first-ever start for the Fighting Irish against Penn State, the highly heralded Clausen was sacked six times.
One week later against Michigan? Eight times. And it never got much better.
In 2007, Notre Dame allowed 58 sacks, the most ever in Notre Dame’s history.
‘We weren’t satisfied with our performance (last year),’ Eric Olsen, a starting offensive guard for the Irish, said. ‘Embarrassment was the feeling. We knew at the end of the year, starting with the last second of the last game, we had a lot of work to do in the off-season.’
Now, in 2008, the Irish are nowhere near those numbers. Clausen has only been sacked 14 times in 10 games, thanks to an improved and more experienced offensive line. Last season, a majority of the starters on the line were sophomores and had little experience playing together.
The Fighting Irish and their revitalized line will welcome Syracuse to South Bend, Ind., on Saturday.
Last year, Olsen said the inexperienced Notre Dame line was not used to facing veteran defensive units which used stunts and twists. Cohesion and familiarity are paramount in building an offensive line, and Notre Dame didn’t have it.
‘It’s one thing to know your job, but it’s another to know the guy’s job next to you,’ Olsen said. ‘If you know what the guys next to you are doing and how they are going to react while doing your own job, it makes things a lot easier.
‘Being able to see the big picture versus just your own assignment, as an offensive lineman, makes a huge difference.’Adding to the difficulty, head coach Charlie Weis shuffled the offensive line in an attempt to find a successful combination.
Olsen floated between left tackle and left guard before he played the final six games of the season at right guard. The constant shuffling prevented Olsen and his fellow linemen from establishing a rhythm. After the final game against Stanford, they started preparing for 2008.
The Irish linemen worked out together in the weight room, became mentally tougher, and developed tighter bonds. Olsen said he’s a different, wiser player in 2008 after the extensive amount of work he put in during the off-season.
The effort he and his fellow linemen put in showed immediately. The Fighting Irish did not allow a sack in either of their first two games this year.
After two games in 2007, they had allowed 15 sacks.
‘Right off the bat, we could tell we were going to be better in pass protection,’ Weis said. ‘Last year, as bad as we were in many facets, the biggest area was in pass protection.
‘We could see early in (2008) that it looked like that problem. I wouldn’t say it was resolved, but it had been minimized.’
How effective the problem was addressed is reflected in Clausen. He has doubled his passing yards from a season ago. He’s gone from 1,254 yards in 2007 to 2,439 in 2008. He’s also thrown 11 more touchdowns this year.
This heightened production has directly influenced Notre Dame’s success, said ESPN analyst Lou Holtz, who coached Notre Dame from 1986-96.
‘All passing game absolutely starts with protection,’ Holtz said. ‘Before you worry about any route, you worry about protection. How are we going to protect the passer if this and this happen? ‘You spend a lot of time with your backs and your lineman on protecting the passer, because otherwise, no matter what route you run, you aren’t going to be able to throw it.’
While Clausen’s stats clearly show an improvement in the passing game, the Irish running game has yet to show consistency. There have been flashes, such as the 201 rushing yards against Purdue on Sept. 27 and outrushing Navy, the No. 2 rushing team in the country, last weekend.
Holtz saw nothing out of the ordinary with this trend.
Many pass-first teams lack the same type of protection for the run game, he said. It’s difficult for an offensive line to excel in both types of protection.
For the Irish, their starting offensive line this year includes only one senior, giving the linemen another year to strengthen their relationships and improve run and pass protection.
With each game and practice, Olsen and the linemen are sure to hold on to some memories of the 2007 season – mainly the number 58.
That dismal season in 2007 remains prime inspiration for the offensive line.
‘It’s something you try to forget, but at the same time always remember,’ Olsen said. ‘You have to remember how that experience was, learn from it, and never allow yourself to go back to something like that.’
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