SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame's offensive linemen want to prove something against No. 17 Stanford after being pushed around by the Cardinal the past two seasons.
Stanford (4-1) held the Irish to a total of 101 yards rushing in those two meetings, winning both games by two touchdowns or more. The Fighting Irish (5-0) are ranked No. 7 now, off to their best start in a decade, and are eager to show times have changed.
Left tackle Zack Martin sees the game against the Cardinal as an opportunity.
"We've watched the tape against us the last two years and everyone they've played, and they've just beaten them up upfront," Martin said. "It's an opportunity for us to go out and prove to everyone we're a tough, physical line that can be consistent and not get pushed around. That's what we're shooting for."
The Irish have been inconsistent in the run game this season. They rushed for 293 yards against Navy in the season opener and for 376 yards against Miami on Saturday, their best total in 12 years. But the Midshipmen were undersized and the Hurricanes have one of the nation's worst rushing defenses.
The Irish managed just 52 yards rushing against Purdue, 122 against Michigan State and 94 against Michigan, numbers that aren't going to sway anyone into thinking the Irish are a dominant running team. But the Irish have come up with big runs when they've needed them.
Coach Brian Kelly said the Irish were making some fundamental mistakes along the line and tailback Cierre Wood wasn't being patient enough to let the play develop. He believes the Irish are correcting some of those problems and are ready to go against a Stanford squad that ranks sixth in the nation in rushing defense, giving up 77.2 yards a game and just 2.66 yards a carry.
"I think we're stronger physically across the board. We're a mature football team. We have veterans on defense. From an offensive line standpoint, we can handle ourselves better," Kelly said.
The Irish use three running backs: Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III. Riddick has the most carries, Wood is averaging the most yards a game (71), and Atkinson is averaging the most yards a carry (9.3). Three backs allow the Irish to keep a fresh player on the field, but it also makes it hard for a ball carrier to find a rhythm.
The Irish changed their blocking schemes this season, going from a line that blocked gaps to a team that blocks zones, meaning linemen are responsible for blocking an area, not a particular player.
"It's all about working together, working with the guy next to you," Martin said.
Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner said the change in philosophy is evident on film.
"They are much more physical and downhill than a year ago. They come off the ball and want to hit people," he said.
The Irish added another dimension last week when they allowed quarterback Everett Golson to run the ball more often, as he carried six times for 51 yards. Kelly said he was hesitant to let Golson take a bigger role in the run game because he was worried about turnovers.
Kelly is now counting on Golson to be able to recognize when he should run.
"He doesn't have to run every down, but when we're trying to block effectively and we've got to leave a guy unblocked, he's got to be able to make the right reads and take it or give it out given what he sees," he said.
The Irish linemen say playing against Stanford should give them a good indication of how far they have advanced.
"They're a really intense team, really physical," left guard Chris Watt said. "So being able to match that intensity is going to be really important in terms of our success out there on Saturday."