O-line keeping it together as Stanford awaits

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.

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."