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.
The 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.
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.
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?
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