For the Fighting Irish, the 2014 campaign ended, perhaps ironically, exactly opposite how 1914 ended for the British Expeditionary Force and the French on the Western Front, one hundred years ago. Faced with the highly-professional and dedicated Kaiser’s host, the French and British retreated throughout August, falling ever back, until they pressed against the very gates of Paris. There, at the Marne, they stood and counter-punched. The masses of French on the left smashed into the Germans and rolled them back, ever back, until they, too, stood firm. And thus, the two great enormities of men rushed to the sea, and dug in along the way, literally, in tens of thousands of cases, digging their own graves.
Brian Kelly’s team started 2014 strong, but came apart down the stretch, as completely and fantastically as an errant space shuttle upon reentry. Having looked at injuries as one explanation, and Everett Golson as another, let us consider the performance of the offensive line in the campaign of 2014. Having lost considerable talent and experience to graduation, the 2014 O-line was going to challenge position coach Harry Heistand. Just how big a challenge, I don’t think, was predicted by anyone back in August.
Having given up just eight sacks in 2013, the 2014 Irish conceded four against Purdue, alone, to go with two, total, in the previous two games. This, and a feeble running attack, prompted a massive shuffle during the bye-week leading up to Syracuse. The table, below, shows the two-deep and how, surprisingly, it was pretty much locked in from the Stanford game on, but how major the changes made for Syracuse were.[table “” not found /]
With the shuffling over, after Stanford, the Irish saw their rushing yards per game remain essentially unchanged, falling from 152.8 yards per game (Rice through Stanford) to 149.43 yards per game (North Carolina through USC). Remarkably, the Irish averaged almost the same number of carries per game, despite only running the ball 29 and 25 times against Louisville and Southern California, respectively. The O-line’s worst performance in the last seven games came against ASU, in which the Irish ran the ball 38 times for 41 yards.
If the running game was a wash, sacks were definitely not, for the Irish wound up the regular season conceding another twenty-two sacks. Certainly, Everett Golson accounted for some of the year-to-year increase. As a more running-able quarterback, he was going to put himself in position to be sacked more than Tommy Rees, who was dialed in to his progressions and his internal “throw-it-away” clock far more keenly. And, to be fair, Golson just bumbled into a few this year, ignoring open receivers or yards of space. The Golson effect is present, too, during the 2012 undefeated season, in which a far more solid line than 2014’s iteration conceded eighteen sacks.
So, perhaps the O-line is due for its fair share of criticism. Christian Lombard, for example, came into the season as the line’s most-experienced player, with twenty-two starts under his belt, but was yanked from the USC game in favor of Notre Dame’s version of Finn McCool, Mike McGlinchey. And what about that snap earlier in the game? Was there a play more representative of this season than that, as the ball rolled, tra-la-la, along the turf?
With a possible fifteen extra practices to be gained, you can bet that Harry Hiestand will be craving the opportunity to figure out what ails the Irish O-line before we head into the Spring. A perchance sign that all, if not all right, is not all bad, Jerry Tillery, a senior from Evangel High in Shreveport, Louisiana, today signed his grant-in-aid agreement with ND and is due to fax it in tomorrow. He will enroll in January. While the lure of possibly playing D-line cannot be discounted, if the Irish O-line were a tire fire, surely LSU, Tillery’s erstwhile suitor, would have made more noise about it.
So it becomes a question, now, of whether 2014, and the Syracuse shuffle, goes down as the start of something great, or whether it was the first of more shuffles to come.