LITTLE ROCK — Necessary to the big picture but generally overlooked, they are the supporting actors in movies and the second bananas in comedy.
In the BCS championship on Monday night, the role belongs to Notre Dame’s offensive line vs. Alabama’s front seven. Not as sexy as Alabama’s offensive line — the best in the country — vs. the No. 1 scoring defense, led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o, this Mano-a-mano might have more to do with the outcome.
On the headline front, I expect a high-quality stalemate when Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and pals try to block Notre Dame’s front and cut off Te’o and Dan Fox. Both sides will win their fair share of the every-down battles to the point that both will be praised, sort of like 1984 when F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were so good in the movie “Amadeus” that both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Behind an offensive line that has made a total of 160 career starts, quarterback A.J. McCarron and his running backs will have some success, and that is the very reason that Notre Dame’s offensive line is on the spot.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson has a strong arm and he can run, not like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, but far better than many of the quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference. From mid-October on, against Stanford, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Boston College and USC, he carried nine to 15 times for anywhere from 39 to 74 yards, production that is a must against ‘Bama.
“If you go in there and say, ‘All right, we’re just going to play the game between the tackles,’ you’re in for a long day,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “We’ve got to get big chunk plays … they know that, we know that.”
That brings us full circle to the guys blocking for Golson and the running backs. Believing in Notre Dame’s offensive line requires ignoring a red flag involving guard Mike Golic Jr. and tackle Christian Lombard. Neither was a regular until this year and I generally hold that against players who have been around a couple of years, theorizing that top-notch athletes find a way into the starting lineup early on.
Golic gets a waiver because if he is bright enough to be doing post-graduate degree work at an institution of higher learning such as Notre Dame, he should know who to block. Center Braxston Cave, who is responsible for communicating the blocking assignments, also has his degree and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy won by Alabama’s Jones.
Lombard, who did not start a game until this season, is exempt from the stigma of being a sub because he has made such strides under first-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand that he is considered one of the top 15 tackles in the country. Projected as a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, left tackle Zach Martin decided to stay another year, citing among other things, an opportunity to play a second year under Hiestand, who was hired away from Tennessee.
Martin called Hiestand a technician, said he had instilled a sense of pride that had been missing in the offensive line, and insisted on the group being more physical.
Guard Chris Watt, a senior who has started every game next to Martin for two years, has also said he is coming back in 2013.
Cave says the group is unique and very close.
“It’s pretty much we’re all like brothers, fist fights one second, laughing and jokes the next,” he said.
The expectation that the margin will be no more than three points with 10 minutes remaining is predicated on Cave’s bunch holding its own and Golson keeping his cool. If that’s the case, the SEC’s run of consecutive BCS titles might end at six.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.