Notre Dame football: In defense of Sam Mustipher and the offensive line

Notre Dame football’s Brian Kelly unloaded on his starting center after this week’s loss to NC State. But the junior is being unfairly maligned by a coach in need of a new scapegoat.

In the wake of Notre Dame’s humiliating 10-3 defeat to NC State this past Saturday, Brian Kelly had particularly harsh words for one player on his team: center Sam Mustipher.

“The snapping of the football was atrocious,” Kelly said, and on the surface, he has a point.

Mustipher also flubbed a crucial snap on Notre Dame’s last drive of the game in the red zone, costing the Irish any chance they had of forcing overtime. Needless to say, Kelly was displeased, and in accordance with his promise a few weeks ago to be more demonstrative on the sidelines, he was caught on national television screaming at Mustipher, face red with rage.

So, yes, on the surface, Kelly had a point. Mustipher was objectively bad at his job, to transfer the football to the quarterback without incident.

But it’s also objectively true that Mustipher was snapping on a swamp of a football field while being pounded by sheets of rain. And it’s objectively true that even after it became clear to fans and pundits everywhere that the shotgun was a poor choice given the conditions, Kelly continued to line the team up in that formation. So for Kelly to rip into Mustipher that harshly seems a little hypocritical.

But that’s just been the modus operandi of Kelly this year: criticize, criticize, criticize, occasionally claim to have everything come back to him, and then go back to attack mode. And it hasn’t been just the dreadful play of the defense, though that has been covered extensively.

Back after the Week 1 loss to Texas, Kelly was calling out his offensive line, saying the potential All-American duo of Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey wasn’t doing enough, despite the fact that the Irish rushed for 4.5 yards per carry and surrendered just three sacks against a swarming offense with a scrambling quarterback.

Sorry Brian, that’s certainly not flawless, but it’s pretty darn good. And given how much of a train wreck this season has turned out to be, pretty good will have to do.

But the Irish offensive line has actually been more than pretty darn good according to Pro Football Focus, which grades every play of the season. According to them, of the 15 sacks Notre Dame has surrendered thus far this season, four of them are on Kizer, who has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long. Eleven sacks in six games isn’t half bad, and PFF calls the O-line, “one of the nation’s best all-around units,” despite the loss of Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley.

Evaluating offensive lines is not an easy task for the average fan. But practically every Notre Dame fan could tell Kelly’s criticism of Mustipher went too far Saturday, especially for a first-year starter.  So it’s not surprising that he walked it back slightly Sunday.

“The conditions were atrocious, so snapping the football was difficult, to say the least,” Kelly said in his weekly teleconference. “It was just atrocious conditions to snap a football in. It was difficult for him or anybody that was asked to snap a football given the conditions.”

But in my mind, that’s damage control on Kelly’s part, who probably realizes how angry fans are with him and how they won’t be distracted by his blame game with a college student. Brian VanGorder was the perfect scapegoat for Kelly in that he was a subordinate, but also one could be realistically held responsible for his performance. Mustipher isn’t the same. He acts directly under Kelly’s command, so his flaws are a direct representation of Kelly’s flaws.