SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame center Braxston Cave snapped the ball on a third-and-6 play early in the game against Purdue, put a quick hit on defensive tackle Kawann Short then stepped to the right — allowing Short to race up the middle and sack Irish quarterback Everett Golson for a 9-yard loss.
“That was all on me,” Cave said. “I just slid the wrong way.”
It was the kind of mistake the offensive line made all too often last week as it struggled in a 20-17 victory against Purdue, allowing four sacks as the Irish rushed for just 53 yards a week after amassing 293 yards rushing in an easy win against Navy. The linemen are looking for redemption Saturday night when they go up against No. 10 Michigan State’s tough defensive line, led by William Gholston.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Cave said. “We just have to go out there and play our game.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly believes line play will be key when the No. 20 Irish (2-0) play the Spartans (2-0) in East Lansing, Mich., saying a play or two could make the difference. Nine of the last 12 games in this series have been decided by a touchdown or less.
“I think it’s still going to come down to winning up front in this game. I think the team that can control the football, minimize the turnovers, is going to be the team that has the best chance to win,” Kelly said.
During the past 15 seasons, the team that has run the ball better has won 13 times. Last year, the Irish won 31-13, rushing for 114 yards while holding the Spartans to 29 yards on the ground. The Spartans managed just one rushing first down in the game. A year earlier, the Spartans held a 203 yards to 92 yards advantage in rushing in beating the Irish 34-31 with a game-winning touchdown pass off a fake field goal in overtime.
The Spartans have outrushed the Irish 10 times in the past 15 games. The Irish offensive linemen know they have to play better this week against a Michigan State defense that has yet to give up an offensive touchdown, including holding Boise State without one for the first time since 1997.
“We’ve got to get better. We didn’t do some things so well last week. We have to improve on that. We’ve been coming to practice, working after practice, kind of just working our techniques and fundamentals,” left tackle Zack Martin said.
After two games, the Irish rank a disappointing 56th in the nation at 171 yards a game. Michigan State is 11th in the country against the run, giving up 54.5 yards a game. With Martin, Cave and left guard Chris Watt all returning starters, and right guard Mike Golic Jr., starting at center last season when Cave was hurt, the line is expected to be a strength this season.
It wasn’t against Purdue. Martin said the Irish just did some little things wrong that turned into big problems.
“Use of hands, our footwork steps, our heads back, all those little things you guys might not see, but in the film room we certainly see,” Martin said.
The linemen also were called for a pair of false starts and had some communication problems as well.
The Boilermakers frequently put eight men along the line, challenging the Irish to pass while hold the Irish to 1.4 yards a run. Notre Dame’s longest run was for 11 yards by Theo Riddick on the final drive of the game that set up the game-winning field goal. He’ll have some help this week with the return of Cierre Wood, who rushed for a team-high 1,102 yards last season but was suspended for the first two games for violating team rules.
Kelly said the Irish also want to get the ball more often to George Atkinson III, who had just one run for no gain against the Boilermakers.
“They all can be stars, starters. We have to make sure that we integrate them all into the offense,” he said.