Improved offensive line key to Irish hopes

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Notre Dame has lost its last two games against USC by a combined score of 76-3. Yet coach Charlie Weis and the Fighting Irish players sound confident going into this week's renewal of the rivalry in South Bend.

What has changed to make them think they can hang with the Trojans this year? The answer can be found on the offensive front.

"Last year, I thought the defense hung in there for a while and the offense was just taking a whooping," Weis said this week. "I'm not expecting to be taking a whooping."

A reporter then asked Weis if he thought the offensive line had improved that much.

"Have you been at the games?" Weis countered.

It's obvious to even casual observers that the Notre Dame offensive line has grown by leaps and bounds this season. That group is a main reason why quarterback Jimmy Clausen leads the nation in passing efficiency and why the Irish have mounted an effective running game for the first time in three years.

The line had 100 career starts coming into this season, and four seasoned seniors are starting this year. The players insisted all offseason that its wealth of experience would lead to improved results, and so far they've been proven right.

"You can see it in the way we're making calls or how, when we're in pressure-packed situations, we're keeping our cool," right tackle Sam Young said. "It's awfully good to have a group of guys who have been playing together for a while now."

The last two times against USC, the offensive line was just awful.

In 2007, Evan Sharpley was sacked five times in a 38-0 loss. Last season in Los Angeles, the Trojans sacked Clausen four times, and he finished just 11 of 22 for 41 yards, with two interceptions in a 38-3 defeat.

"The offense, I thought we just got manhandled," Weis said about the 2008 loss. "From start to finish I thought we got manhandled.

"They were able to pin their ears back with four guys and get after us. I think they completely controlled the line of scrimmage, and I'd like to think that that won't be the case this week."

Notre Dame has allowed nine sacks through five games, but Clausen has usually had plenty of time to operate in the pocket. It's one thing, however, to hold off Purdue and Washington. It's another thing to do it against USC.

The Trojans may have lost a ton of talent to the NFL, but they're once again shutting people down on defense. They're tied with Cincinnati for the FBS lead with 21 sacks through five games.

"They really get after it." Young said. "It's a challenge. You have to look at it as a challenge."

If Notre Dame can't stop that pass rush, then it makes no difference how well Clausen is playing. The offense won't get anything going, and USC will roll to another blowout victory.

But if the offensive line can give Clausen room to make plays, then he and the passing game are strong enough to generate points. And then, at least, the Fighting Irish will have a fighting chance.

"We've had success this year whenever we've had the ball in our hands," Young said. "We expect to score and nothing less. And I'm not talking about three points; I'm talking about six. We have that kind of confidence, and it should be very advantageous for us this week."