Things We Learned, Part 2: Notre Dame’s offensive line has fallen short in week one before, but it did not have this passing attack then

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Notre Dame at Florida State
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A year ago, Notre Dame returned all five starting offensive linemen.
This year, the Irish replace four of them.

A year ago, Notre Dame struggled to run the ball effectively in the season opener against paltry Duke.
This year, the Irish struggled to run the ball at all in the season opener against Florida State.

The more things change, the more things stay the same, which is to say, offensive lines rarely get off to strong starts.

“It’s one of those things, it’s the first game,” fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg said last season. “I hate to say it, but it takes a couple drives to get up to game speed. …

“One of the tough things is you practice something in practice or on scout team, and it shows up in the game as something completely different. It’s just one of those things, you have to adjust to personnel, to the players you’re playing against. It’s tough. I’m not going to lie, it’s tough, but at the same time, we have to start quicker, we have to attack more, and we just need to focus on improving and going back to basics.”

Eichenberg ended up anchoring an offensive line that reached the College Football Playoff and heard his name called in the second round of the NFL draft, but one may have thought he foresaw a complete rebuild of both his unit’s and his own approaches after Notre Dame ran for only 178 yards on 42 carries, a 4.2 average rush, against Duke.

Make no mistake, the Irish rushing approach was worse on Sunday night in the 41-38 overtime victory at Florida State. Notre Dame was lucky to win at all after gaining only 65 yards on 35 carries, but then again, the Seminoles’ defensive front is significantly better than the Blue Devils’ was. While there may still be much wonder about how good Florida State will or will not be this season, there was never any doubt about Duke last year — it would be and was bad, giving up 213 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per rush en route to a 2-9 season.

Notre Dame has fallen far short on the ground in week one before. It turned out alright, not that the Irish are assuming that will be the case now.

“We were still committed to the run, we just need to be better at (it),” head coach Brian Kelly said late Sunday night. “We weren’t as good at running the football tonight as we needed to (be). You’re not going to get by running for 65 yards. That’s not good enough.”

Kelly spent some of his Monday press conference pointing to the difficulties of a silent cadence as a contributing factor to the ground game’s struggles. Logically, everyone getting off the ball in unison and meeting their blocks as planned, particularly finding double teams as planned, will be tougher when relying on a silent snap count, but that is no excuse. Notre Dame knew Doak Campbell Stadium would be rife with catharsis, just as it knew Athens, Georgia would be raucous two years ago.

Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The problem in 2019 was false starts due to the silent snap count, now it is apparently a detriment to the run game’s cohesion.

Either way, it is ground previously trodden.

“From a running game standpoint, we did not see any red flags that are going to say this is going to be difficult this year,” Kelly said. “We’ll get better running the football.”

If the Irish do indeed improve running the football — both a literal guarantee given the low bar of 65 yards and a figurative hurdle given the severity of that Labor Day Eve failure — then their offense may be the force long needed to break into the top-tier of college football.

Notre Dame threw the ball all around the field against the Seminoles, starting with the opening drive’s four pass attempts and four completions for 82 yards and a touchdown, and ending with quarterback Jack Coan’s two third-quarter touchdown passes to stake the Irish to the large lead they would eventually need.

It could have ended with a key Coan third-down conversion to ice the game, but that drop from sophomore tight end Michael Mayer need not be further discussed until it arises again. Some mishaps, like the woeful run game, are signs of bigger problems. Some, like Mayer’s pair of drops Sunday night, come across as little more than opening night energies.

“There’s some growing pains there, we just didn’t execute the way we needed to late in games,” Kelly said. “We’ll take that and have to build off some of those things.”

Coan finished with 366 passing yards and four touchdowns, including three scores of 20 yards or longer, two of them coming entirely through the air. Somehow, Notre Dame did not lean on its short-passing game of years past yet maintained efficiency, completing 26 of 35 passes, a 74 percent completion rate.

Some of that credit goes to the very unit most maligned at the moment. While Coan was sacked four times, some of those were coverage sacks more than blown blocks, and some of the credit simply goes to Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson, finishing with seven tackles including 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. (The fact that Johnson could not get on the field at Georgia implies the Dawgs front-seven may be better than anyone has realized, even after their dominating season-opening win against Clemson.)

Overall, the Irish protected Coan and gave him time to work.

“I think the O-line did a fantastic job tonight,” Coan said. “I trust those guys with everything. It’s different here when you’re playing in a game. You’re not in practice anymore wearing a red jersey, you get it, you have to move around and scramble, take some hits. It was good to get the feel for that again.”

Kelly was not as effusive in his praise, though still praising the four new starters — five new starters, really, when double-counting left tackle after sophomore Michael Carmody replaced freshman Blake Fisher just before halftime due to a knee strain.

“We protected pretty darn well, we were pleased with the protection,” Kelly said. “We had a couple procedure penalties, we had an assignment error on a sack where we just flat out went the wrong way on it, on a slide protection. Overall I’m pretty pleased with what we did from a protection standpoint.”

Going the wrong way on a protection is the kind of mistake to be expected when breaking in four new starters in a pent-up road environment, yet it was also the kind of mistake seen a year ago from the most veteran offensive line in Notre Dame history.

That turned out pretty well. It may again, and if it does, the Irish offense is in a better position than it has been at any point during this four-year resurgence. This exact concern is a new one for Kelly:

“We’re not here to throw the ball all over the yard and not have a solid running game, too.”