by John Vannie
Oklahoma converted two pass interceptions into a 14-0 lead just three minutes into the contest and stayed in control the rest of the way for a 35-21 win at Notre Dame Stadium. The 4-0 Sooners used a productive running game and short, quick passes by Blake Bell to keep the Irish defense in chase mode all day. Notre Dame closed to within one score on three occasions, the last of which occurred one minute into the fourth quarter, but Oklahoma had an answer each time. Bell finished 22 for 30 for 232 yards and two touchdowns, while Tommy Rees was 9 of 24 for 109 yards and three interceptions for the Irish.
Disaster struck on the opening series when Rees’ third down pass was tipped at the line by Eric Striker and fell into the hands of linebacker Corey Nelson. He returned it untouched for a 24-yard score just 49 seconds into the game. On the very next play from scrimmage, a Rees pass was deflected in the secondary, and Frank Shannon grabbed it for the Sooners. Damien Williams beat the Irish defense to the right corner of the end zone from 11 yards out and Oklahoma was staked to the 14-0 advantage in less than three minutes.
The shell-shocked Irish responded by becoming more physical on defense and turning to the running game when they had the ball. Taurean Folston’s 36-yard run set up a six-yard pass to T.J. Jones late in the opening quarter that cut the deficit to 14-7. Notre Dame also began to integrate Andrew Hendrix into the offense to mix in some read-option runs. After a few successes, Oklahoma adjusted and a promising Irish drive ended when the Sooners correctly anticipated that Hendrix would keep the ball on third down.
While its defense solidified, Notre Dame went on the march again midway through the second quarter. A reception by tight end Troy Niklas moved the Irish into the red zone with a chance to tie the game, but a poor, ill-advised throw into double coverage by Rees was picked off. The Sooners began an 88-yard drive that was aided by a no-helmet participation penalty against Notre Dame and a clutch third down scramble by Bell to get into scoring territory. Dropping back to pass from the Irish 26, Bell moved away from pressure in the pocket and found LaColtan Bestor for touchdown strike just before the half.
Trailing 21-7, Notre Dame struck back in its first possession of the third quarter after the defense forced a three and out. George Atkinson burst through the left side on a well-blocked run and blazed past the Sooner defense for an 80-yard score. They could not hold onto momentum, however, as the Sooners returned the kickoff to midfield and Bell continued to chip away at them. His short passes to the flat found quick receivers who beat the Irish coverage all too frequently. Williams, Brennan Clay and Bell also ran the ball effectively, and backup quarterback Trevor Knight chipped in with a 30-yard romp when Bell had to leave due to leg cramps. Although the Sooners were only able to add two Mike Hunnicutt field goals during this stretch, they were sandwiched around a Notre Dame three and out.
The Irish got back to running the ball with Atkinson as the third period came to a close. His success helped to set up an effective play action pass to Niklas, who was wide open at the ten yard line and waltzed in to complete a 30-yard score. Suddenly, Notre Dame was back in the game with 14:10 remaining and down by only 27-21. Unfortunately, Oklahoma had yet another answer. A mix of runs and short passes brought the Sooners near midfield, and Bell responded to a third down Irish blitz by throwing a quick ten yard strike over the middle to Sterling Shepard, who added 44 yards after the catch by leaving Notre Dame’s secondary in his wake. Bell and Shepard teamed up on the ensuing two point conversion, and the Sooners stretched their lead to 35-21 at the 12:24 mark.
Notre Dame’s last gasp comeback attempts fizzled as Rees was one for eight in the team’s next three possessions. Without the threat of the run and play-action in the passing game, Oklahoma was able to blanket the Irish receivers. Notre Dame linebacker Ben Councell was ejected during the fourth quarter for a helmet to helmet (and completely unnecessary) hit on a Sooner receiver. Councell will have to sit out the first half of the next game against Arizona State.
Credit for the win goes to the Oklahoma coaching staff, whose plan devised over their bye week was executed to perfection. Bell was mainly asked to throw short, safe passes and allow his quick receivers to do the rest. The Sooners also ran the ball well from both the tailback and quarterback positions, and achieved a balanced attack that yielded 216 yards rushing and 443 yards overall. The Irish had 231 yards rushing thanks in large part to Atkinson, but managed only 340 total yards.
Let’s look at the answers to the pregame questions for additional insights.
Will the retooled Sooner rushing defense hold up against the Irish offensive line? The Irish still gashed the Sooners when they were committed to the run, but this didn’t happen consistently throughout the day.
Can Notre Dame’s receivers get separation from Oklahoma’s talented defensive backs? Rees threw into coverage on more than a few occasions, but these were typically in situations where Oklahoma knew a pass was coming. Irish receivers were much more accessible when the Sooners had to respect the run.
Which team will get an early jump on its opponent? I think you know the answer to this one.
Will the Irish be able to pressure and effectively contain Bell? Notre Dame did a fair job and was physical throughout the day, but the Sooner speed and quickness enabled their staff to exploit Irish weaknesses.
Which team will convert opportunities into touchdowns in the red zone? Both team converted most of their chances, but Rees’ second quarter interception at the Oklahoma 12 was very costly.
Will Irish fans get to wave their green pom-poms or will they become as useful as Chia pets? Only prior to the opening kickoff and upon Atkinson’s long touchdown run. They were nowhere in sight during the long and depressing fourth quarter.
The 3-2 Irish must now pull themselves together and take on two PAC-12 opponents before a midterm break. Arizona State will meet Notre Dame in Dallas in the annual Shamrock Series game, followed by a home game against rival USC. These teams also feature plenty of speed in their attack, so there is work to do for Bob Diaco’s troops. Meanwhile, the offensive coaches must decide to employ the running game to set up the pass, instead of the wrongheaded inverse strategy that has failed miserably against the better teams on the schedule.