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  • Sooners Provide Key Test for Irish

    by John Vannie

    Notre Dame’s football schedule lineup moves from the Big-10 to the Big-12 this week as the Irish square off against the visiting Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday afternoon. Coach Bob Stoops has his team at 3-0 thus far this season and has the benefit of a bye week to plot revenge for Notre Dame’s 30-13 win last year in Norman. The 3-1 Irish showed signs of defensive improvement last week and are hoping for a breakout game by what has been an inconsistent offense. The University is encouraging fans to wear green shirts and will hand out green pom-poms to most fans in attendance. NBC will televise the game beginning at 3:30 PM Eastern time.

    Stoops has largely rebuilt his team from last season, with the notable exception of the offensive line where four of five starters have returned. Quarterback Landry Jones and left tackle Lane Johnson were huge losses, however, and the offense has just begun to get untracked. The Sooners have emphasized a more physical, ground oriented approach favored by new offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. Early results are positive, but quarterback Trevor Knight struggled in the passing game and was knocked out in his second start. Blake Bell, the 6’6” 250 pound backup who is regarded as a better runner than passer, stepped in to throw for 413 yards last week against Tulsa.

    Bell earned the start against Notre Dame by virtue of this breakout performance. If he can continue to throw the ball competently for a team that averages 272 rushing yards per game, Oklahoma will be tough for opponents to handle. Meanwhile, Tommy Rees leads the Irish, who wore down the Sooner defense last year with a relentless ground attack that set up a few high-impact passes by Everett Golson. That balance has not quite materialized so far in 2013, and it’s doubtful that Rees can beat an opponent of this caliber by throwing the ball 50 times.

    The Irish hope to have defensive end Sheldon Day back in the lineup after the talented sophomore sat out the game against Michigan State. Oklahoma has played recently without left tackle Tyrus Thompson and cornerback Aaron Colvin, but both are expected to start on Saturday. The contest shapes up as a referendum on the BCS viability for both teams, but is particularly important to the Irish after their earlier loss to Michigan.

    NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. OKLAHOMA’S DEFENSE

    The Sooners employ five backs in the secondary for a 3-3-5 alignment, but may default to a 4-2-5 setup out of respect for the Irish ground game. Stoops had to retool his defensive line this spring after being overwhelmed by Notre Dame and later embarrassed by Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. So far, the results are promising but inconclusive. New faces include end Geneo Grissom, a converted tight end, nose tackle Jordan Phillips, a raw 320-pounder who is only beginning to scratch his potential, and end Charles Tapper, a very active sophomore with exceptional athleticism. Chuka Ndulue has moved inside from end to tackle this season, and he is backed up by Quincy Wilson. Pass rusher/linebacker Erik Striker typically replaces Ndulue on third down.

    Although Oklahoma has allowed only nine points and 100 rushing yards per game, the collision with the Irish offensive line will provide a clear indication as to how good the Sooners’ rebuilt front really is. One statistic may be a bit alarming – Oklahoma has only three sacks in as many games against marginal competition despite a more aggressive blitzing philosophy. While Notre Dame’s disciplined pass blockers should be able to keep Rees upright in the pocket against this group, the key to the outcome may be how well it can run the ball on them. Despite the added beef, the Sooners are designed primarily to be competitive in a pass-oriented conference.

    Linebackers Frank Shannon and team captain Corey Nelson form the second line of defense. Each is versatile against the run or the pass and Nelson is regarded as the team’s best player. He leads the team in tackles with Shannon a close second, which indicates that the line is doing its job to this point. Colvin is the team’s best cover man, so opponents have frequently targeted Zack Sanchez on the other side. The remainder of the back line includes rover Julian Wilson and safeties Quentin Hayes and Gabe Lynn, who has two interceptions to his credit.

    Oklahoma’s personnel dictates a reliance on speed and deception to contain the Irish. That gamble may work this year as Coach Brian Kelly’s 99th ranked running game has yet to frighten anyone. If Kelly becomes too pass-heavy, Notre Dame may find it difficult to score points and convert in the red zone as the Sooners have yet to allow a touchdown through the air. Although Sooner Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops admired Michigan State’s tight man-to-man pass coverage last week, he intimated that he will mix things up against Rees and the Irish. “We’ll pick and choose when we are and when we aren’t (in man coverage) just as they did,” he said. “I thought Michigan State did a great job playing very aggressive and not giving up those chunk yardage plays.”

    OKLAHOMA’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE

    Bell’s success through the air surprised a lot of people last week and provided a boost to an offense that was sluggish in its first two outings with Knight at the helm. A team that averages 272 rushing yards but is also capable of a 400 yard passing game is cause for concern to any defense. The question is whether Bell really is an accomplished passer based on a single outing. The similarities to Connor Cook and Michigan State are striking – a new quarterback gets the start over a struggling teammate when the offense falters, and proceeds to throw like Joe Montana against an overmatched opponent. The following week at Notre Dame, said quarterback throws more like Hannah Montana.

    Cook’s subpar performance does not guarantee that Bell will misfire on Saturday, and the Sooner receivers are better than their Spartan counterparts. Seniors Jalen Saunders and LaColtan Bester team up with sophomore Sterling Shepard to form a dynamic trio. Jaz Reynolds and Durron Neal are also in the rotation. All are capable of outrunning a secondary for a quick score. Tight end Brannon Green is rarely targeted in this offense.

    Irish ChocolateThe crucial test between these units will occur in the trenches, where the Irish dominated last year and held Oklahoma to 15 net yards rushing. Center Gabe Ikard and the rest of the Sooners’ returning linemen have not forgotten that beating. “Yeah, it felt pretty terrible,” Ikard said. “They were definitely more physical than we were on the line of scrimmage.” Incoming Coach Bedenbaugh is also very much aware of Louis Nix, if not completely awed by the Irish nose guard. “I don’t think I’ve seen many guys like him,” he said. “This guy is massive, he’s a big, thick guy. You look at him on film and he covers up the center. You can’t even see the center. So he presents a challenge.”

    Stoops has his own rotation of running backs that are still competing for positions on a very unsettled depth chart. Brennan Clay has supplanted Damien Williams as the starter, while the diminutive but quick Roy Finch provides a change of pace and third down pass receiving skills. The player that Sooner fans are talking about and even beginning to compare to Adrian Peterson is freshman Keith Ford. He will definitely see action against Notre Dame as Oklahoma will look to maintain a credible rushing threat.

    Of course, Bell presents another set of problems with his ability to run the ball. Mobile quarterbacks have made plays against the Irish this season, and the Sooners have incorporated Pistol formation read-options into their playbook as they shift from a pocket passer in Jones to capitalize on the strengths of Bell and Knight.

    SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Irish continue to suffer from inconsistency and poor execution in the return and coverage aspects of special teams. As an example, the punt coverage team inexplicably let a punt roll into the end zone last week despite having multiple players in position to down the ball inside the five yard line. Kyle Brindza has performed reasonably well in his workhorse role as punter and place kicker, although he still commits the occasional flub at an inopportune moment.

    Oklahoma has a pair of strong place kickers in Mike Hunnicut, who has converted eight of nine field goal attempts, and Nick Hodgson, who has recorded 15 touchbacks in his 22 kickoffs. Junior Jed Barnett is a solid punter, although he had one returned for 77 yards by Trey Watts of Tulsa. Saunders has done a good job returning punts for the Sooners, averaging 13.5 yards per try. Reserve defensive back Trey Franks handles the kickoff return duties.

    SUMMARY

    The Sooners have made a few defensive upgrades from last season to better compete at the line of scrimmage, but they are still vulnerable to a power rushing attack. The question is whether Notre Dame can get itself untracked by unleashing its offensive line and feeding one or more tailbacks that can get the job done. Conversely, Oklahoma cannot rely on Bell to complete passes all over the field on the Irish defense. The Sooners also rushed for nearly 200 yards last week when he threw for 413, but they cannot expect to approach 600 yards of offense in Notre Dame Stadium, nor will they pass very efficiently without a productive running game. Instead of running directly at Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Oklahoma will steer away from Nix and try to defeat the Irish on the perimeter. Sure tackling becomes paramount in this scenario, but the Irish linebackers and safeties have not been crisp this season.

    It will be difficult for either team to play from behind should the other get off to a fast start. The Irish have not produced many points in the first quarter since the season opener against Temple, and that will have to change if the hosts are to extend their ten-game home winning streak.

    Here are a few questions that reflect keys to the outcome:

    Will the reconfigured Sooner rushing defense hold up against the Irish offensive line?

    Can Notre Dame’s receivers get separation from Oklahoma’s talented defensive backs?

    Which team will get an early jump on its opponent?

    Will the Irish be able to pressure and effectively contain Bell?

    Which team will convert opportunities into touchdowns in the red zone?

    Will Irish fans get to wave their green pom-poms or will they become as useful as Chia pets?

    PREDICTION

    Oklahoma is well-coached and will be highly motivated, but their commitment to a more physical approach will be thoroughly tested by the Irish. Notre Dame needs to exert its best effort of the season to escape with a victory, and this game will go a long way toward determining the trajectory of their season. The Irish have the tools to win, but they must avoid playing from behind in the second half as Kelly is quick to abandon the running game. A repeat of the impressive 2012 performance in Norman might once again jump start Notre Dame and help them climb back among the elite teams, but I don’t see it happening this time.

    OKLAHOMA 24 NOTRE DAME 20

    30 Responses to “Sooners Provide Key Test for Irish”

    1. ND 35 Ok 34
      Offense comes to life. Kelly finally committs to running. Offense bails out defense for a change.
      Go Irish!

    2. There is little to lead us to believe that this team is ready to win a big game like this. We have been lucky in our wins that our opponents were not very talented. This team is and the margin of victory for OU will be over ten.

      The only way ND wins is if they commit to a more physical approach and improve greatly in the middle of the field defensively. I guess we will see.

    3. BeveragePavilion_69 says:

      The Irish send “shock waves” throughout the country 38-14.

    4. Please publish these on Sunday, so the ND coaches can read them and prepare. Your research is top notch and thorough.I have a sinking feeling that both the weak run defense and inability to run the ball on offense last year will be exposed and doom the Irish. Take a look at last year’s highlights on youtube and marvel at the leadership and momentum on the field that is sorely missing this year.

    5. My primary reason for optimism this weekend is the competition that Oklahoma has faced thus far in the season. They have not been tested, much like MSU had not been tested coming into last weekend. I think that leads to a greater possibility for errors/turnovers and if this game stays closer (which is what BK will be trying to do in my opinion) that bodes well for UND.
      DEFENSE
      I think that the defense will continue to grow, and hopefully build upon the success against a bad MSU offense last weekend. Jury is still out on OU’s qb situation. They’ll be able to move the ball, can we stop them in the red zone?
      OFFENSE
      I think a lot of the trouble with our offense right now is that we are very predictable and you can scheme against what BK & Co. want to do pretty easily. OU will stack the box early to keep our running game from getting any kind of rhythm and make Tommy throw the ball. We can only hope that we hook up on enough early throws to force them out of the run defense and allow us to be balanced. OU’s competition thus far has not been anything close to UND type athletes so I think we’ll be able to score points.

      I’m going to be optimistic, but this could go either way. Home field swings it Irish’s way

      ND 27 OU 17

    6. Durron Neal and Brennan Clay. You have the first and last name transposed.

      Good preview. Thanks.

    7. There is no indication that supports a prediction of an Irish victory over Oklahoma. Our only hope for this is a marked improvement by special teams, the Offense, and the Defense…that is, the ENTIRE team, including the coaching of the running game.

    8. austinirish says:

      The Irish will need to step things up incredibly, as they did in Norman last year, to be competitive. The efforts that we’ve witnessed so far will not get it done. Unfortunately I call it 30-21 OK and hope I am wrong.

    9. atlantadomer says:

      I recall not feeling great about this game last year, until I saw a small tidbit the day before the game. It stated that Oklahoma had the second smallest D-Line (behind only Navy) that we faced in 2012. I see they’ve got a “hoss” in the middle now, but all in all, are they on the smallish side again? Maybe time for our run game to get healthy!!! GO IRISH.

    10. I’m no English major, but when you say “untracked” I think you mean “on track.”

    11. A lot of you guys on here are fretting about our run defense, but I think it is rather unfounded. The three big games we have played, Mich, Purdue, Mich St., our defense actually did pretty well against the run. Now, I can hear some of you screaming about Mich, but total rushing yards that game was 166 and the leading rusher was the QB. However, most of those rushing yards came on broken pass plays where he tucked it and ran. Touissant only ran for 71 yards and zero TDs. Purdue only garnered 38 total rushing yards. Mich St. ran for 119 yards spread over two main backs, Langford and Hill.

      What we need to be careful for is Bell’s running ability when pass plays breakdown, much like what happened to us against Mich. The questions that should be asked are 1) Will Bell be able to thread the needle against our secondary the same way that Mich was? and 2) Will our front seven be better at getting to and containing Bell? If Bell has as much success running on broken pass plays as Mich did, then ND will come up short. I do not fear their running attack because our front seven has actually played very physical against the run this season. We have yet to give up a 100 yard rushing game to a single back!! Have faith boys. Go Irish!!!!

    12. Don’t know how this goes. Do know that last year no one gave us a shot at winning on the road, and most thought we were “lucky to be unbeaten”. This is why we actually play the games. Let’s just go play.

    13. 24-21 Irish win. Time for a 60 minute game against top team. Lose this game and I think we are looking at a 4 loss season. Win and hopefully a BCS game.

    14. I thought it was interseting when you noted earlier this week that Kelly does not like running the ball against Big 10 teams. I took a look at the numbers and vs. Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State in 2012, ND averaged 89.3 yards rushing/game and 2.6 ypc. In 2013, 88.3 yards rushing/game and 3.3 ypc.

      Then I looked at the other common opponents on the schedules, Oklahoma, BYU, Navy, Stanford, Pitt and USC. 2012 looked like this against those opponents: 230.2 yards rushing per game and 5.2 ypc.

      Part of that is the expanded offense that allowed Golson to run but against BYU when Rees played the full game, we got 270 yards on the ground and 6.3 ypc! So I hope this is the weekend those numbers flip like they did last year.

      • John Vannie says:

        I’d like to see the running game come alive as well. This is the week where it would pay dividends. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Kelly is as committed to the run this season, whether it is a lack of trust in his running backs or a belief that throwing the ball with Rees is his best option. He obviously likes his wide receivers and is trying to exploit various matchups in that area. I just don’t think it’s enough to beat the better teams we will play.

    15. Memo to Brian Kelly: If you want to win this game we cannot kick field goals in the red zone and we need to convert third and short yardage more consistently.

      Please consider trying to install a package of plays for Hendrix. I am tired of watching a team that cannot run on 3rd and 2 or less and everytime we are inside the 10, I cringe at the thought of Tommy Rees getting intercepted or throwing lobs that go out of the back of the end zone.

      Other then that if we stay close Stoops will find a way to choke it up as he does in most big games…

      Irish 27-20

    16. Ghost of Joe Moore says:

      Unfortunately after watching the Irish start slow every game this year on offense, the errant, inconsistant throws by Rees, his lack of mobility in the pocket and the mostly uninspired play by a defense that was supposed to surpass last years performance, reality besets the Irish program on Saturday. Oklahoma had a week to prepare and will simply put more pressure on Rees as he doesnt have the escapability that Golson had last week which will stall the offense to a bunch of 3 and outs.

      Defense hopefully may rise up to keep it close. They appeared to show a bit of a spark and gell a bit late 3rd quarter and most of 4th quarter against the Spartans last week so that may stem the tide a bit but Irish fall 30-14 a reverse almost of last year. I dont think things get much better next week w/ Arizona State – they play fast and Tuitt and Nix appear to have lost a couple steps this year although admittedly Nix gets doubled almost every down. Pass rush is jut not there this year like last.

      GO IRISH!

      Hoping for the best but I fear a real reality check these next 3 weeks – could be 0-3.

    17. Great insight as always on here. Love all the comments and opinions. This game is very important for the success and momentum of Notre Dame’s season. A loss does not look good for them, but a win can certainly jumpstart the team. I feel that Tommy Rees is not a shotgun QB. He is too slow and lets be honest he can’t run. I feel his qualities are best suited for lining up under center, utilizing play action, giving the opposing defense the allusion that we could run or pass so that makes them a little unsure about our play calling. When we line up in shotgun 5 wide, the defense knows that Tommy can’t run so they know to expect the pass so they are not guessing at all. They know what’s coming. We need to still keep the element of surprise with our play calling and keep the defense guessing. Unfortunately if our offense doesn’t change things up I see Oklahoma winning something like 31-21. I hope I’m wrong. Go Irish. Would love to see our freshmen running backs and Cam get some good touches too.

    18. I don’t think OU necessarily is that good team despite its ranking. But, nobody we have played this year has been that impressive either, and we were only marginally better than 3 of them. So, I look for OU to win, and by 10 or more. In fact, I won’t be surprised if the outcome becomes evident early since I have yet to see any evidence the coaching staff can develop game plans that leverage any of the skill sets that the Irish players allegedly have.

      We have two 4-star RBs and we seem incapable of getting them any space in which to suggest the ratings may have been warranted. I doubt the fault lies with the RB coaches since last year’s backs did pretty well. I know Rees’ weaknesses change the options for the offense. But, we supposedly have a superior OL that should allow the backs we have to grind out yardage. The reputations of the frosh backs suggest possibly in large chunks occasionally. If those twos can’t be used more effectively than they have been, they should have been redshirted.

      As for QB, Hendrix and Zaire need to be given some quality reps if they are expected to be meaningful backups should it become necessary for one of them to step in as the starter next season. Golson’s history makes me a tad nervous. Hopefully, the off-field stuff is done. But he did suffer a concussion last year, and any reoccurrence could sideline him for an extended period of time. Failing to play these two is a huge gamble that could prove costly. Relying only on Rees is a gamble of another kind.

    19. irishhawk50 says:

      I think everyone else has covered the positional breakdowns. I think the slow starts and tentative play are somewhat psychological. I think Kelly’s calling for a “green out” to jump start the team is a good idea, but to have a “green out” without the green jerseys doesn’t make much sense. Despite what he says maybe Kelly has something up his sleeve.

    20. Last week I said that the ponies would do great things. This week, I think, a balanced attack is going to drive the opponent nuts. On the other hand, Tommy is a really good person with a great deal of grit,but I tremble when he throws. Ground game takes the day and the Defensive line will have stars in their crowns. ND 35-OK-28

    21. Gotta run to win big games. Period.

    22. Sorry guys, a second string quarterback produces second string results. The secondary is porous and there is no linebacking corp. Significant loss today. Sadly, Sooners 35-17.

    23. ND’S TACKELING IS THE POOREST IN 20 YEARS. NOBODY COVERS THE CENTER OF THE FIELD. THE OTHER QB CAN RUN/PASS FOR 10YARDS AT WILL. IT IS LIKE TAO LEFT AND WAS NOT REPLACED. SOFT PASS COVERAGE CALLED BY COACH D SUCKS. OUR RIGHT GUARD AND 2ND TEAM OFFENCE END BLOCK NOBODY. O28 ND 14. POOR OVERALL COACHING JOB SO FAR.

    24. NDBonecrusher says:

      JThom those are startling stats. I certainly didn’t recall that we had poor rushing production at the beginning of last year. All I remember is Riddick pummeling people. I hope, and believe, that the running game will finally make an appearance this week to the delight of all of us. ND wins.

    25. d-backs still need to cover properly. they can’t cover staring into the face of the receivers. they must turn and look at the ball.

    26. Still they could have recovered but did not. So make adustments.Go to shoot and run strategy (which Kelly should have done when he saw he did not have a gifted QB). Run First; throw second (and rarely). Get away from the “prevent”. Teach them how to be “real” defenders; it’s a hell of a lot of fun. The season is not over in the least bit.

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