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September 28, 2013

Irish due for a block party

Notre Dame’s offensive approach in 2012 was much different than the manner of attack in 2013, mainly because of personnel and partly because it doesn’t take much for Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin to “return to their roots” as spread offense coaches.

When Everett Golson was a first-time quarterback helping lead the Irish to an undefeated regular season in 2012, there was a much greater emphasis on the ground game. The Irish rushed for more than 200 yards seven out of 13 games with nine games of at least 35 carries. Notre Dame attempted as many as 30 passes in just five games last year.

With quarterback Tommy Rees - who offers no running threat and is an experienced passer compared to where Golson was a year ago - the Irish have yet to rush for 200 yards in any of their four games and Rees has attempted as many as 30 passes in three out of four games, including 53 attempts in the shootout loss to Michigan.

If the Irish are to raise their home winning streak to 11 games Saturday against No. 14 Oklahoma, they’ll likely have to strike a balance between the run and the pass that served them so well in 2012 but has been hit-and-miss so far this season.

When it comes to run blocking, the Irish are still a work in progress. When it comes to pass blocking, Notre Dame’s front has been spectacular.

“There are so many factors to that,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly when asked about the disparity in production between the offensive line’s run blocking and the offensive line’s pass blocking.

“They’re blocking the five guys that they’re supposed to block pretty (well). There are times when obviously we need to be better at it. We have to block seven and eight, and we’ve got to get better at that. But they’re doing a great job in pass protection.”

The Irish have allowed just three sacks in four games, which is a pace for an incredible nine sacks during the regular season. Rees has had plenty of time to throw a majority of the time. The offensive front shut down Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, who entered the Notre Dame game last Saturday with high expectations but left with limited results.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s running game has sputtered the last two weeks against the Boilermakers and the Spartans, who have limited the Irish to just 173 yards rushing on 69 carries (2.5 yards per carry).

If the Irish are to defeat the Sooners, they’ll have to strike a balance in the offensive attack. Notre Dame rushed for 215 yards against the Sooners last season, 62 of which came on a Cierre Wood touchdown run. Even without that long run, the Irish averaged better than four yards per carry against Oklahoma. Three of Notre Dame’s 23 rushing touchdowns in 2012 came in that game in Norman.

Notre Dame has just three rushing touchdowns in four games this season, and the 3.7-yard average per carry has shifted the Irish back to their pre-2012 struggle on the ground.

The Sooners allowed a shocking 192 yards rushing and 5.1 yards per carry in 2012, and that was with a veteran front that included David King, Jamarkus McFarland, Casey Walker and R.J. Washington, who combined for 42 starts, 115 tackles and seven sacks in ’12.

Among the starters along Oklahoma’s defensive line Saturday are red-shirt junior Geneo Grissom, red-shirt sophomore Jordan Phillips and sophomore Charles Tapper, all of whom will be making their fourth career starts in Notre Dame Stadium.

Oklahoma has allowed just 100.7 yards rushing per game, but West Virginia managed 169 yards, including another long run against the Sooner front - a 75-yarder by Dreamius Smith that gave the Mountaineers the early lead.

With Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line led by left tackle Zack Martin and left guard Chris Watt, this match-up is reminiscent of when the Irish squared off against Michigan three weeks ago. The Irish had the advantage up front against the Wolverines and squandered the opportunity in the trenches by rushing the football just 19 times as Notre Dame spent the evening in the catch-up mode.

This game is on the Irish offensive line, the skill players to execute the run game, and the offensive brain-trust to capitalize and take control of the line of scrimmage against a defensive front still unproven if not vulnerable to a solid, consistent ground game.

“We need to do a much better job as a unit, as a whole, and that’s not just the offensive line,” Kelly said. “That’s everybody, coaches and tight ends included, in blocking the whole play.”

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