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September 5, 2012

When it doubt, lean on the line

The situation was hardly dire, but Navy was threatening to get back into the game.

After taking a 27-0 lead last Saturday afternoon in Dublin, Notre Dame had allowed the Midshipmen to kick a field goal as time expired in the first half, and then a three-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the third quarter that pulled Navy to within 17 points.

That’s when Notre Dame decided to put an end to the small dose of drama.

Over the final 29:03, the Irish out-scored Navy, 23-0, limiting the Mids to just four first downs and 64 yards total offense while Notre Dame tacked on 258 yards offensively - 135 yards rushing and 123 yards passing.

Notre Dame’s back wasn’t against the wall, but it was time to make a statement after Navy’s touchdown drive. A 12-play, 87-yard touchdown march began the second-half onslaught.

“It goes to your leadership, especially the guys up front when you’re looking at (Zack) Martin, (Chris) Watt, (Braxston) Cave, (Mike) Golic and those guys,” Brian Kelly said. “Been there, done that.”

All four of those offensive linemen, as well as defensive players Kapron Lewis-Moore, Manti Te’o, Dan Fox, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter, have been around for the 16 losses in the last three years. Fifth-year seniors Cave, Golic, Lewis-Moore and Slaughter have been a part of the program for 22 losses.

The response to adversity hasn’t always been as sudden as it was against Navy last Saturday. In fact, 10 of the 16 losses over the last three years have been by a touchdown or less. In other words, when the game was on the line, the Irish didn’t make the plays necessary to win a football game. Saturday was different.

“I think it says a lot about the maturity and the leadership that we have on the football team,” Kelly said. “Certainly we have built a lot of resolve over the last few years, and our guys know they’ll have to overcome.

“We talk about it every day. You’re going to have to overcome some adversity. So they took the challenge and it was good to see.”

The offensive line paved the way for 293 yards rushing. That’s the most yards rushing by an Irish offense since the Nov. 29, 2003 Stanford game when Notre Dame totaled 320 against the Cardinal.

First-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand deserves some of the credit for instilling a more hard-nose approach and a togetherness that was a bit fragile at the end of Ed Warinner’s two-year stint as offensive line coach in 2010-11. Kelly prefers to look at the collective contributions, beginning with Martin, Watt, Cave and Golic, who now have a combined 69 starts. Credit also goes to the Irish running backs, particularly Theo Riddick, who ran with abandon against Navy.

“I would never go as far as to say it’s an offensive line coach,” Kelly said. “Harry is an outstanding offensive line coach, and I am so pleased to have him with us. The players love playing for him.

“But this is about a collective group of guys that are physically stronger, they’re more seasoned and they play very well together as a unit.”

The improvement in the performance of the offensive line/running game has been steady since Kelly’s arrival. After averaging just 127 yards rushing per game and 4.0 yards per carry in 2010, those numbers improved to 160 and 4.8 last season. After one game this year, Notre Dame is averaging 6.4 yards per carry.

Those gaudy rushing numbers obviously will level off as the season progresses, but perhaps not until week three against Michigan State. Notre Dame’s highest single-game rushing output a year ago was the 287 gained against Purdue, Notre Dame’s next opponent.

“It’s as good as I’ve seen in a very short glimpse of what we’ve done,” said Kelly of the offensive line play. “We’ve got a long way to go. But I like the way the group plays together. They’re not a group where one guy is not on the same page as the others.

“For me after week one, (I’d say they’re) well coached and they’ve got a great (meeting) room in terms of that offensive line dynamic, which is outstanding with the players and coaches. They’ve really got some veterans and a very good unit working together.”


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