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December 21, 2010
The football is snapped, and Allen Bailey and his friends along the Miami defensive line don't spend much time hanging around the line of scrimmage.
It's the offensive backfield they like to inhabit.
How Notre Dame's offensive line - particularly tackles Taylor Dever and Zack Martin - handles the nation's No. 1 unit in tackles for loss and No. 6-ranked sack attack will go a long way toward determining the winner of the 77th annual Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas.
"They have a really explosive and quick defense," said sophomore left tackle Martin. "Their defensive line?they've got big-time players. They're a real athletic defense, maybe the fastest defense we've played this year."
"They're fast, they're strong, and they're big, as are most defensive lines in the country," said senior right tackle Dever. "But this one is really good."
Martin and Dever have the toughest chore on the edge against Bailey and fellow defensive ends Olivier Vernon, Adewale Ojomo and Andrew Smith. Those four have combined for 21 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss.
But the Hurricanes get good push up the middle, too. With the ends coming off the edge, tackles Micanor Regis and Marcus Forston - who have combined for 16 tackles for loss and six sacks - have been effective in the middle of the line and benefit from the up-field charge by the defensive ends.
Any one of a half dozen or so Miami defensive linemen is capable of putting an offensive line on its heels.
"We've got to communicate and talk up front, and get all their stunts and blitzes picked up," Martin said. "Individually, you've got to do your assignment every play and you have to play your best game because this is arguably the best defensive line we've faced this year."
"Bailey is a great player," Dever said. "He's a great defensive end. But we feel like we're a great offensive line, too. So it's an excellent match-up."
Bailey will line up over both Martin and Dever, depending upon the placement of the football. Bailey lines up on the "field" side of the formation, so both Martin on the left (Bailey's right) and Dever on the right (Bailey's left) must be prepared for the 6-foot-4, 285-pound senior from Georgia.
"They'll flip their ends," Dever said. "Bailey plays to the field, which is typical with most good defensive ends. We've just got to play within ourselves."
Brian Kelly and his offense will be seeking ways to use Miami's aggressiveness against them. With 103 tackles for loss and 37 sacks, the Hurricanes' defensive front doesn't spend much time "reading and reacting." Miami football is about getting after people, and that's what the defensive front does.
The counter moves to that aggressiveness, however, often lead to substantial yardage in the run game. Ohio State gained 181 yards on the ground against the Hurricanes, and Florida State racked up an impressive 298 yards rushing. Georgia Tech's option attack netted 308 yards on the ground. One week later, Virginia Tech amassed 251 yards rushing. Even Virginia, which lost eight out of 12 games this season, managed to rush for 185 yards against the Hurricanes - 46 yards above their per-game average.
"Absolutely, you can (use Miami's aggressiveness against them) with different counters and traps," Martin said. "If they're going to fire up the field every time, we can hit them with some plays like that."
"There are always certain things you can do as far as play calling goes to try to take advantage of their aggressiveness," Dever said. "But when it comes down to it, you've just got to win the one-on-one match-ups at every position."
The Irish will have to be effective running the football in order to put freshman quarterback Tommy Rees in a more advantageous situation. If Rees is faced with 3rd-and-long all day against the Hurricanes, chances are he'll fall into a mistake-prone mode, much like he did in the final game of the regular season against USC when he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.
"We're working really hard on our run blocking," Martin said. "It's definitely something we're trying to get going because as an offensive line, we've got to be able to run the ball to take the pressure off Tommy."
Dever believes their past experiences against teams with notable pass rushes - Purdue, Pittsburgh, Utah and USC to name a few - will assist the Irish in their preparation for Bailey and Co.
"Going against ends like (Purdue's Ryan) Kerrigan and other guys we did this year, we know how to use their strengths as their weaknesses, so to speak," Dever said. "The coaches know how to do that too.
"Zack and I have seen enough talent this year that I'm confident we'll be able to handle them if we stick to our assignments."