Error line: Notre Dame’s unit not flying high so far

The Irish offensive line has underperformed with 20 sacks allowed and only a sputtering running game to show for its work.

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Cain Madden

Notre Dame offensive lineman Cain Madden (62) plays against Purdue during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 27-13.

Michael Conroy/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame may be undefeated four games into this college football season, but that has happened in spite of an uncharacteristically leaky offensive line.

Among 130 FBS teams, only lowly Akron has allowed more sacks than the 20 Notre Dame has surrendered thus far. And the Fighting Irish running game, even with Kyren Williams coming off an 1,125-yard season, has sputtered to just 2.29 yards per carry, third-worst in the nation.

The only programs with more enfeebled rushing attacks: Louisiana-Monroe and Bowling Green.

“The offensive line,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said before facing No. 7 Cincinnati on Saturday, “it is what it is.”

Under normal circumstances, there might be some heat on the position coach, but Jeff Quinn has been a trusted Kelly associate for more than three decades. They first worked together as assistants at Michigan’s Grand Valley State in 1989, and their collaboration has continued through Kelly’s head coaching stops at that same school (1991-2003), Central Michigan (2004-06), Cincinnati (2007-09) and Notre Dame.

Quinn went 20-36 as head coach at the University of Buffalo from 2010-14 before returning to Kelly’s staff as an offensive analyst in 2015. From there, Quinn’s role has shifted as needed: assistant strength and conditioning coach (2016), senior offensive analyst (2017) and, upon the well-regarded Harry Hiestand’s return to the NFL’s Bears in 2018, offensive line coach.

So it was that Kelly chuckled a bit this week when asked what he has learned about Quinn during this rocky start to the season for that typically stalwart unit.

“I’ve known Jeff for over 30 years,” Kelly said. “There’s nothing that I don’t know about Jeff. He takes it harder than anybody else. He’s got to keep working with his group like he has every day.”

When right guard Cain Madden, the graduate transfer from Marshall, was asked how tough this stretch has been on Quinn, a Notre Dame spokesperson briefly intervened before allowing him to answer.

“He’s the same guy every day,” Madden said. “You don’t get [any] up and down. He’s really consistent with how he coaches, and he’s coaching us to get better. That’s what you’d expect from a position coach.”

In fairness to Quinn, Notre Dame was without its top lineman, senior center Jarrett Patterson, all spring due to season-ending foot surgery in 2020. Frequent shuffling marked spring practice.

Notre Dame has since churned through four different left tackles. Freshman Blake Fisher won the job out of fall camp before going down in the opener; next it was Michael Carmody’s turn until his ankle gave out.

Lately the starting spot has belonged to redshirt freshman Tosh Baker, but versatile Joe Alt, a 6-8 freshman from Minnesota, keeps pushing for playing time. Converted center Zeke Correll has been starting at left guard, but untested Andrew Kristofic has joined the jumbled mix.

Most of the breakdowns have been on the left side, especially in pass protection. Graduate transfer Jack Coan, knocked out of Saturday’s win over Wisconsin (his old school) with an ankle sprain, wasn’t very mobile even before that setback.

“The right side has been assignment-correct,” Kelly said of Madden and right tackle Josh Lugg. “They’ve done a nice job. We’ve got to be a little bit more consistent on the left side, certainly.”

That will happen when you lose a quartet with 144 college starts to the NFL. There will be no Joe Moore Award this year for the Notre Dame offensive line, which claimed the national honor in 2017.

When it was suggested Notre Dame rarely has seen line struggles like this, Kelly pushed back.

“Oh, no, we’ve had periods like this at Notre Dame before,” he said. “Look, the O-line is always going to get the scrutiny. This isn’t just, ‘Let’s throw the O-line under the bus.’ Everybody’s got to pitch in here; coaching, players. We’ve all got to get better.”

At this point, the school’s fan base would settle for something approaching mediocrity.

“When you have a bunch of new pieces, that’s the biggest thing: getting on that same thought process and having everyone thinking the same,” Madden said. “When we break down the film, we’re so close to being there. We know we’re going to get there.”

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