Chicago Colleges: Aaron Donald

O-line keeping it together as Stanford awaits

November, 26, 2013
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- What could have been a disaster turned out to be an offensive lineman's dream.

A season-high of 47 rushing attempts will create the latter. Having to pound it like that while down two starting blockers will make the former a legitimate possible outcome.

And with a test against the nation's No. 3 rushing defense on-deck, what will emerge next probably lies somewhere between the two extremes.

It doesn't get much more difficult for Notre Dame's front than it will this Saturday at Stanford, which concedes just 89.5 yards per game on the ground. Complicating matters is the loss of Nick Martin, thanks to a season-ending left knee injury suffered in the first frame of Senior Day.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Matt Hegarty
Tommy Grealy/Icon SMICenter Matt Hegarty filled in for the injured Nick Martin on Saturday and the Irish O-line didn't miss a beat, rushing for 235 yards against BYU.
But with southpaw Matt Hegarty snapping the rest of the way, the Irish marched toward 235 rushing yards, their second-best output of the season. And they kept Tommy Rees unscathed for the fifth time this year.

"It was kind of an offensive lineman's dream today, with the wind and running the ball," left tackle Zack Martin said after beating BYU. "So we wanted to kind of impose our will on them in the snow. It was kind of a nice little ending there."

The Irish are now 20-0 in their last 20 games when attempting at least 30 rushes, according to Irish Illustrated. Perhaps more noteworthy is the job they have done protecting Rees, who has been sacked just seven times this season, tied for the second-lowest mark in the nation.

The Cardinal will present a challenge in that department, too, as they are tied for sixth nationally with 34 sacks. But pass-rushing mammoths have brought out the best of Notre Dame, which is the only team to have held nation-leader Aaron Donald (26) of Pitt without a tackle for loss. The Irish protected their real estate this past weekend against BYU's Kyle Van Noy (15 TFLs) as well.

Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy enters the regular-season finale atop the nation in sacks (13) and tied for fourth with 19 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

"I think it could be an absolute disaster, right, if you think about the entire right side as well as missing Chris Watt for a game," coach Brian Kelly said of the offensive line. "You're talking about three and four different guys going in there on the offensive line at times, and Coach [Harry] Hiestand has done an incredible job of putting this together as a unit. I'll go back to their summer workouts where they stayed together as a unit during the summer and really worked hard together, and I think that unit mentality has really served us well."

Steve Elmer, who has split time at right guard with Conor Hanratty since back surgery shut Christian Lombard down last month, is less than a year removed from high school. Hegarty, meanwhile, is barely a year removed from a ministroke.

Fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt on the left side will likely be tasked with recognizing pressures and conveying calls to Hegarty. But against the Cougars, at least, the newcomer blended in without incident.

"Any time you can have a strong running game and get some play-action going, it helps those guys up front," Rees said. "Zack's talking, it's the offensive line's dream to have a game like that. [The] offensive line has been awesome all year. Critical passing downs I was able to get through, back to my fourth progression and make some great plays down the field, and it all starts with them. I told them at halftime, Keep controlling the line of scrimmage, it starts with you guys and we are going to close this one out."

Planning for success: Notre Dame

November, 7, 2013
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Sheldon Day was the first to enter the auditorium of the football complex after practice Wednesday. Chris Watt came later, with the left guard still in pads and with his right leg lightly wrapped.

[+] EnlargeSheldon Day
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSheldon Day is one of several players returning from injury for Notre Dame heading into the Pitt game.
Both players' appearance before reporters was as sure of a sign as any that the injured linemen will take the field for No. 23 Notre Dame Saturday night at Pitt. Louis Nix III is expected to go as well, though everyone will have to go off Day's words about Nix practicing Wednesday for the nose guard's improving status.

Getting all three players back is imperative for an Irish team whose injured list seemingly grew by the day these last two weeks after consecutive games against Air Force and Navy.

"It's just knowing what you can and can't do, and basically just getting the motion back and getting the power back with your steps," Day said of playing with an ankle that won't stop nagging him. "Basically trying to teach your body again what it can and can't do."

The sophomore end may as well have been speaking for Watt, too, who has been bothered by a PCL tear that kept him out of last weekend's contest but said he took all of the first-team reps with offensive line Wednesday.

"It's hard to describe because I never really had it before," Watt said of his injury. "It's almost like a lock, I guess you could describe it, and just kind of feels maybe like mentally like it's going to happen right here. But it's an injury that over time you won't even notice after a while, and it'll feel kind of, I guess a weird healing process. But I think just [athletic trainer Rob Hunt] and his staff did a great job this past week-and-a-half and continue to do a good job, and I think by the bowl game I probably won't even notice it."

Watt suffered the injury Oct. 26 at Air Force while working a combination block with Zack Martin and getting his right leg stuck in the surface before it twisted the wrong way. It will not require surgery. Coach Brian Kelly had said that Watt would play against Navy, but during warmups the senior ended up feeling that he would be hurting his team more than helping it by playing.

Day, meanwhile, re-aggravated a high ankle sprain against Navy that he initially suffered Sept. 14 at Purdue, which forced him to miss most of the following three games. He called this injury a less-serious version of the original sprain, and he knew by Monday that it would not be enough to keep him off the field this weekend.

"I felt like it wasn't a point in time where I thought this was worse or anything like that," Day said. "But I could definitely feel it."

As for Nix, the junior is expected back in some capacity after sitting out the last two games with knee tendinitis and a small meniscus tear that has required PRP treatment and will eventually need a minor surgery to clean up the tendinitis, though that will come later.

Nix, a preseason All-American, may have to share the spotlight Saturday night with another interior defensive linemen at Heinz Field, as Pitt's Aaron Donald has garnered plenty of attention this season by leading the nation in tackles for loss (2.4 per game) and coming in at third in sacks (1.1), while also forcing three fumbles.

"Last year we went 101 plays I think on offense, and he was going hard pretty much every snap. He doesn't really come off the field," Watt said of Donald. "He's a guy that's possibly the smartest defensive line player we play this year. He does a really good job of reading O-linemen.

"He does a really good job of knowing our formations the offense is running, so we have to do a really good job this week of being balanced [with] what we're doing and not really giving anything away in our stances."