by John Vannie
Notre Dame travels to Norman, Oklahoma on Saturday night to play the Sooners in what is the most significant football game for the Irish in seven years. Everett Golson returns at quarterback for Notre Dame, who will need an offensive spark to keep pace with the high scoring Oklahoma attack. The eighth-ranked Sooners stand at 5-1 on the season while the undefeated Irish are trying to bolster their credentials in the national championship conversation. The ABC network will provide national television coverage beginning at 8:00 PM Eastern time.
Coach Bob Stoops, who boasts a 79-4 record in home games and a .804 overall winning percentage in his 14th season, has built his 2012 team on the shoulders of senior quarterback Landry Jones and a vastly improved defense. The Sooners dismantled Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas in the past three weeks by an average score of 52-16 following a disappointing home loss to Kansas State. Although the Oklahoma coaches and players have downplayed the importance of this non-conference matchup in various public statements, there are signs emanating from Norman that the game is indeed significant.
Stoops suddenly reinstated defensive tackle Stacy McGee this week, ending a season-long suspension. The school has asked fans to dress in school colors to show solidarity, which by itself is hardly significant. What is more telling is the number of local media stories dedicated to the rivalry between these schools, highlighted by Notre Dame’s historic victory to end the Sooner ‘s longest ever 47-game winning streak and its overall dominance in the series. One such article focused on the hatred of Irish or Catholics harbored by various Sooner faithful, many of whom were not even born in 1957 http://newsok.com/ire-for-the-irish-why-oklahoma-fans-hate-notre-dame/article/3721299.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is not a team that lights up the scoreboard but is simply trying to improve from week to week. A stout defense has carried them for most of the season, but they have been helped by a productive running game that has kept Manti Te’o and friends fresh and resilient. Golson and the passing game must generate balance and find the end zone if the visitors are going to be successful this week. The Sooners have an outstanding passing attack featuring several future NFL players, and are built to score points against anyone in college football.
This matchup represents a significant test for the Irish, who have not faced a quarterback as proficient as Jones and a group of receivers quite as dangerous as Kenny Stills and company. In fact, this game will serve as excellent preparation for next month’s showdown in Los Angeles against USC, as both opponents are remarkably similar on both sides of the ball. That discussion will be set aside for another day, however, as Irish players and coaches have enough to worry about this week in Oklahoma.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. OKLAHOMA’S DEFENSE
The Sooners do not have any superstars on the defensive front seven, but they are a solid group of talented and well-coached players. Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops has returned to his brother’s side to coach a 4-2-5 unit lead by active tackle Jamarkus McFarlane and ends David King and Chuka Ndulue. Oklahoma has not dominated against the run this season and McGee’s return to the depth chart may indicate that the Sooners are concerned about Notre Dame’s punishing ground game.
Stoops frequently deploys a pair of junior linebackers and five defensive backs in his base set against pass-happy Big 12 opposition, but Notre Dame’s power game will undoubtedly force him to counter with a 4-3. Tom Wort handles the Mike position and is flanked on the weak side by Corey Nelson, who is equally adept at rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. When a third linebacker is utilized, it will probably be sophomore Aaron Franklin or senior Jaydan Bird. Whichever alignment Stoops chooses, it does not appear that he can neutralize Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert.
The secondary is the strength of Oklahoma’s defense, particularly at safety. Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris lead the team in tackles by a wide margin. The corners are Aaron Colvin and Demontre Hurst, and Colvin is a legitimate All-American candidate. Nickel backs Gabe Lynn and Julian Wilson get on the field in passing situations. The Irish need to stay out of third and long situation against this talented and confident group. “It’s going to be a defensive battle, and we’re going to impose our will on the other team,” Harris said earlier this week.
Golson must be able to throw the ball on any down, but Notre Dame has to stay within striking distance on the scoreboard so the effects of its running game can pay dividends in the second half. Stoops may be able to come up with a scheme to slow down the Irish running backs early, but it will be difficult to sustain for four quarters. It is vital that Notre Dame is poised and ready to execute its attack at the outset, as an early turnover could ignite the Sooners and result in an insurmountable deficit. If the Irish can stick to their game plan and control the clock, they will gain confidence and yardage as the evening progresses.
OKLAHOMA’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Jones is an efficient quarterback who has completed 63% of his passes this season with only three interceptions. He has several quality receivers at his disposal, with Stills as the primary target. Justin Brown, Sterling Shepard and Trey Metoyer are all capable of big plays. The Sooners will likely stick to short passes early out of respect for Notre Dame’s pass rush. Jones will release the ball quickly and count on his receivers to generate yards after the catch, so the Irish linebackers and secondary will focus on precise positioning in the passing lanes and crisp tackling.
Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco will strive to disrupt Jones’ rhythm in the pocket and move his feet while attempting to pass, although it is doubtful the Irish will resort to an all-out blitz very often. Instead, they will guard against the big play and try to win the majority of the battles on third down. The Sooners have converted on more than 50% of these opportunities this season, so Notre Dame will face a difficult task.
Oklahoma’s running game is improved from recent years and has enabled the Sooners to be more balanced. Damian Williams is the starter at tailback, averaging 7.5 yards per carry and nearly 100 yards per game. Dominique Whaley and Clay Brennan share the workload and also have impressive numbers. The Sooner ground attack has contributed 200 yards per game and 20 touchdowns to the offense, including a red zone power formation called the “Belldozer” run by reserve quarterback Blake Bell. At 6’6” and 254 pounds, Bell is a supersized version of Tim Tebow, and has scored eight rushing touchdowns in six games.
Obviously, Notre Dame’s defense cannot allow Oklahoma to run the ball successfully, as Diaco does not want to move his safeties toward the line of scrimmage given the Sooner’s explosive wide receivers. Trey Millard, a 250 pound fullback, will be a key player in taking on Manti Te’o, who must shed blocks quickly and play another strong game for the Irish. Oklahoma’s offensive line is anchored by center Gabe Ikard and senior left tackle Lane Johnson, but there is youth and inexperience in this group that Notre Dame must exploit to keep the high-scoring Sooners under control.
The Irish were fortunate that comparatively poor special teams play and field position challenges did not cost them victories against Stanford and BYU. Oklahoma has the ability to exploit this weakness with an excellent punt and kickoff return game as well as reliable coverage units. Both its return teams have recorded long touchdowns this season. Neither punter Tress Way nor kicker Mike Hunnicut has exceptional leg strength, but Hunnicut is nearly automatic on field goals within 45 yards.
Coach Brian Kelly admitted some disappointment with his special teams this week, and noted that kickoff return man George Atkinson’s production has been limited by ineffective blocking. The Irish could use a spark in this area and Atkinson could deliver if the ten players in front of him bring more intensity to their job. Kicker Kyle Brindza narrowly missed a couple of easy chances against BYU, but those kicks did not appear to mark the beginning of a slump. He will need to be sharp this week, and punter Ben Turk must eliminate the sub-35 yard shank that seems to pop up in every game.
Oklahoma will be aggressive from the start in an effort to take the early lead and put Notre Dame at a disadvantage. It is vital that the Irish survive the first quarter and overcome the butterflies caused by the hostile environment and Sooner pressure. Bob Stoops has correctly maintained that turnovers will be decisive in this contest, but there are other factors to watch as well. The team that maximizes its strengths and mitigates its weaknesses is most likely to prevail. For the Irish, the strong points are its ground attack and ability to stop the run, but Golson’s ability to complete a few passes against Oklahoma’s suffocating secondary is critical to maintain possession. For the Sooners, protecting Jones and staying ahead on the scoreboard are the key ingredients to victory.
Kansas State’s win in Norman last month proved that Jones and the offense can be contained, but a trio of rare Oklahoma mistakes made a world of difference in the 24-19 loss. Jones fumbled in his own end zone to hand the Wildcats one touchdown, and threw an interception deep in his own territory to set up another. In the only red zone possession this season in which the Sooners did not put points on the board, Bell’s fumble on the Kansas State one yard line cost his team another seven points. Absent these mistakes, one could argue that Oklahoma should have won by as much as 27-10. While Sooner fans cannot change the past, they would dearly love to end Notre Dame’s dreams of perfection this season.
The Irish will need to create disruption and force similar uncharacteristic mistakes if they are to pull off the upset this week. Here are the key questions that will determine the outcome:
Which quarterback will best protect the football?
Can Notre Dame shut down the run and make the Sooner offense one dimensional?
Will the Irish get off to a solid start on the road?
Can Notre Dame’s receivers get open against the talented Sooner secondary?
Will poor special teams play finally cost the Irish?
Can Notre Dame improve its own efficiency in the red zone?
At what point in the broadcast will you hit the mute button on Brent Musberger?
Despite the dire predictions of several noted experts, my heart insists that the Irish are capable of victory. A good start is critical, and although the visitors might win only two or three times out of ten, the only result that matters is driven by how this particular game unfolds on Saturday night. Notre Dame has won close games this season because its defense has remained firmly in control while the offense grinds out just enough points. In this matchup, the offense will have to be much more efficient because Oklahoma is too potent to be shut down entirely. Regrettably, my head tells me that Golson is not quite ready for a challenge of this magnitude, the gap between him and Jones at quarterback is too great, and the chronic weakness of the Irish special teams will combine to put the Sooners over the top.
OKLAHOMA 24 NOTRE DAME 16