Doesn't seem fair, really. The Notre Dame football team's offensive line has led the charge to generate more than 1,000 yards in the first two games, but there's an overwhelming temptation to focus on three plays that didn't work so well.
They were three very critical plays, though.
Second half last Saturday in Ann Arbor. With the lead and the momentum, the Irish offense faced three third-and-short plays - and got stoned on all three. Twice at third-and-1, Cierre Wood ran and came up with a combined minus-four yards. Once on third-and-3, Wood again - this time he lost three.
Two of those fruitless plays were followed by a punt and then a Michigan touchdown drive.
An extended drive on any of those series could have changed the complexion of the game.
Alas, like five turnovers, those ended in frustration. Fuel the collapse.
"Each one of those (third-down plays) has a component to check out of and throw the ball," said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. "We had some scenarios there that maybe should have come out in a check to a pass. We had loaded (eight and nine men) 'boxes' in all those scenarios."
Kelly alluded to Michigan's penchant to put extra defenders in tight to shut off a run between the tackles. When quarterback Tommy Rees recognizes the concentration, an obvious reaction would be to switch to a pass, in which receivers would get man-to-man coverage.
"There's a couple scenarios where you'd want to go and just pitch the ball out to (receiver) Michael Floyd, in those man-to-man situations," Kelly said.
For some reason, Rees stuck with the call.
"It's upsetting," said Irish offensive line coach Ed Warinner. "Those are situations where we'd like to hold onto the ball. We just didn't execute well there. We like the plays we had called. We just didn't execute. Couple guys missed some blocks."
So, what does an offensive lineman think when the numbers are stacked against him and the challenge is to stubbornly run full-speed ahead?
"As an offensive line, you've just gotta block (eight or nine men in 'the box') if that's what (the defense) is going to do," said right guard Trevor Robinson. "I'm confident if they have seven guys up, our seven guys are better. If they want to stack 'the box,' that's fine. I'm confident our quarterback will get us in the right plays. If they're going to run into it, it's our job to get it."
"We're going to go up there (with eight or nine in 'the box') and be physical, just like we know they're going to be physical," said left tackle Zack Martin. "We're confident that Tommy is going to get us in the right checks and the right plays. We just have to do our jobs."
"Be physical (against eight or nine in 'the box')," is center Braxston Cave's answer to the test. "Obviously, those aren't the numbers you want to run the ball against, but when it comes down to it, it's a one-on-one matchup and you've gotta beat your guy."
Beyond the 513 yards of total offense against Michigan, and two sacks in two games, another testament to Notre Dame's effectiveness was its converting on 8 of 14 third-down snaps against the Wolverines. That's an improvement from 5 of 14 against South Florida.
Of course, when Kelly gauges success, he wants seven points for every 80 yards. That means, in order to live up to expectations, the Irish should have scored at least 42 in each game.
How that translates into what happens Saturday against Michigan State will be interesting.
"A lot of good things were done, but in the end, you're as good as you finish," Robinson said. "Productive on first down, productive on second down, to get it to the third-down situation we want, it doesn't mean anything if you don't finish the series.
"It's frustrating. We've obviously showed that we can run the ball (158 rushing yards a game); that we can move the ball. I don't think it's a question of: Can we do it? We just have to do it on those big downs, when it really counts at the end of the game.
"I didn't play well enough on those three (third) downs. As an offensive lineman, that's where you want to pride yourself. I didn't do a good job. I'll put that on me."
There's plenty of blame to go around. Nobody seems to be ducking it. It's more a matter of getting better in time for the Spartans. What will the line's challenge be?
"(Michigan State's defense) is very physical," Martin said. "They're not going to do a lot of crazy blitzes. They're going to keep it basic, but they'll be very tough and very physical. It's going to come down to us getting them (out of the way) to run the ball."
Michigan State yielded just one first down in last week's shutout of Florida Atlantic.
"As an O-line, we're playing really well," Cave said. "It goes down to executing and finishing in the end. Turnovers have killed us. We have to focus on that week-to-week."
"All we can do is look at the things we're doing well," Robinson said. "Then look at the things we're struggling at - finishing drives, third-and-short. All we can do is look forward to Saturday to prove we can get the job done."
"We know we're there. We just have to keep taking away some of the mishaps that we've had," Cave said. "We've got great chemistry along the offensive line. The communication's there."
"We did a lot of good things, but at certain times we made mistakes that we have to clean up; just little things that (fans) probably wouldn't even notice," Martin said. "If we execute and don't turn the ball over, we can do some really special things. We can't wait for Saturday. We have to unleash some of this anger that we have."
Winning would be the ultimate way to blow off a little steam.
Take care of the little things. Get the job done on third-and-short.
Everything else will fall into place.
Staff writer Al Lesar: