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December 24, 2013

Young size vs. veteran quicks

NEW YORK - Notre Dame’s offensive line - minus three-year starter Chris Watt, 11-game 2013 starter Nick Martin, and year-and-a-half starter Christian Lombard - remains just as big but not nearly as experienced as the Irish head into the Pinstripe Bowl to take on Rutgers.

Among junior left guard Conor Hanratty, junior center Matt Hegarty and freshman right guard Steve Elmer, the Irish have seven career starts to go along with 12-game 2013 starter Ronnie Stanley at right tackle and monolithic left tackle Zack Martin, who has started 52 straight games.

Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights have a starting defensive line of 12-game starters Marcus Thompson and Djwany Mera at end, 12-game starter Isaac Holmes at nose tackle and standout defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, who started 11 games during the ’13 regular season.

Whereas Notre Dame averages 6-foot-5, 310 pounds across its offensive front, Rutgers’ defensive line runs more in the 6-foot-3, 260-pound range with the exception of the 280-pound Holmes.

“They’re great at stopping the run,” said Hanratty, the “veteran” of the new starters, along with Elmer, who will be making the fourth starts of their careers. “One of the things we’ve emphasized is we need to run the ball. There’s no way around that. We’re going to have to go through it.”

Going through the Rutgers defensive front can be a bit tricky. Rutgers held nine of its 12 opponents to 119 yards rushing or less during the ’13 regular season. While it’s true that the Scarlet Knights have faced a bunch of sub-par rushing attacks - only Arkansas’ 24th-ranked ground game rated higher than 69th among their other 10 FBS opponents - the fact is Rutgers is allowing just 94.6 yards rushing per game, which is fourth in the country.

“(We’re) going to get a lot of movement from Rutgers,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of the Scarlet Knights’ defensive line. “That front is going to move a lot. We’ll have to be able to pick up games and things up front.”

Hegarty, who made his starting debut against Stanford, has seen plenty of film on Rutgers, some impressive, some, in his mind, exploitable.

“They do what they do really well,” Hegarty said. “They confuse some offensive lines and they end up with a free guy making a tackle.

"Drive him out of there and get as much space as you can because we really want to run on them. When we get a chance to double-team, we want to tee off on that guy. We want it to be a demolition through there and open up a hole."
-- ND center Matt Hegarty

“They have some movement, but they also have a lot of tips, a lot of tendencies that they give away. We’ve really focused on that. One of our strengths is we want to be on the same page and make sure we’re covering guys up.”

Hanratty downplays Notre Dame’s size advantage because it’s not an edge if the Irish don’t tend to the strengths the Scarlet Knights boast up front.

“Size really isn’t everything when it comes to that,” Hanratty said. “They’re quick and they’re very good with their schemes. It comes down to film study and seeing the tips that the defense gives you. You have to come off the ball with the confidence that you’re going to make your block.”

So how do the Irish compensate for Rutgers’ experience, movement and quickness?

“With great fundamentals,” Hegarty said. “We’ve really stressed that this week. When you’re on your own, be fundamentally sound, drive him out of there, and get as much space as you can because we really want to run on them. When we get a chance to double-team, we want to tee off on that guy. We want it to be a demolition through there and open up a hole.”

Notre Dame has had experience against quality interior defensive linemen this year, led by Arizona State’s Will Sutton and Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald.

“We’ve played a lot of great players and (Hamilton is) definitely in the ranks,” Hanratty said.

As for the potential for chilled conditions in Yankee Stadium Saturday afternoon…

“Cold weather is just another aspect of football,” Hanratty said. “It doesn’t really bug us. It’s just part of going out and playing. You can’t let that get to you. You’ve got to be mentally tough.”

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