Here we go again! Last season, Notre Dame and Oklahoma faced off in ABC’s highest rated non-championship football game in history. Both teams entered the game looking ahead to potential BCS glory, but fans and analysts alike still questioned whether either team was championship caliber. Notre Dame at 7-0 had dominate wins against Navy, Miami and Michigan State, but lackluster performances against Purdue, BYU and Michigan. Oklahoma, on the other hand, was one tough loss to Kansas State from being undefeated.
We all know the outcome, a 31-13 victory by Notre Dame, but the game was much closer than the score indicated. The totality of Notre Dame’s offense came off two big plays: Cierre Wood’s TD Run and Chris Brown’s 50 yard reception. The Sooners managed 356 yards through the air, but Landry Jones threw a key interception to Manti Teo which turned the tide of the game in the Irish’s favor. The Sooners also had a Blake Bell TD run called back on a questionable holding call. But when you look at the stat sheet, Notre Dame deserved to win the game. The Irish offense rushed for 215 yards with all 3 TDs coming on the ground. On the other side of the ball, the defense held Oklahoma to an impressive 15 yards rushing on 22 carries. They allowed Landry Jones to pass his way into the red zone and then they simply clamped down. The Sooners were 1 for 5 on their red zone trips.
This Saturday the Irish will need to once again dominate the trenches if they intend to continue their BCS hunt. But Oklahoma will not make it easy. The Sooner team that visits South Bend this season is much more balanced and much more efficient than last year’s version, and has already established itself as one of the Big 12’s premier offenses. Let’s take a look at what makes them so good.
Rushing (271.7 ypg – 16th in the nation)
In the offseason, Bob Stoops, Oklahoma’s head coach, fired offensive line coaches James Patton and Bruce Kittle, and hired Bill Bedenbaugh. Stoops was intent on fixing Oklahoma’s rushing game and he knew that the repairs needed to start upfront. Thus far into the season it appears that the problem is fixed.
The Sooners have rushed for 271.7 ypg, good for 16th in the nation, and currently have three backs with 145 yards or more. With five returning starters along the offensive, including All-American center Gabe Ikard and up-and-comer guard Nila Kasitati, the Sooners have proved that can once again dominate the trenches. In all three of their contests, including a close game against West Virginia, the Sooners used the running game to control the clock, wear down their opponent and close out the game.
Stoops employed a rotation of three talented backs behind his experienced offensive line. Brennan Clay currently leads the pack with 45 carries for 262 yards (5.8ypc) which includes a 171 yard explosion against West Virginia. Clay is elusive and has excellent vision which creates problems for the Irish who have struggled to tackle this season. Damien Williams, who did not play against Tulsa, has carried the ball 37 times and tallied 161 yards (4.4ypc). Williams struggled to find running room against the Irish last season and, given Clay’s success, it will be interesting to see how Stoops incorporates him into his game plan on Saturday. Roy Finch, the final man in the rotation and a freshman, has rushed for 110 yards on 15 carries, but boasts an impressive 7.3ypc. Finch has incredible speed and the capability to break a big play every time he touches the ball.
Passing (218.7 ypg – 75th in the nation)
Bob Stoops shocked Sooner nation and most analysts when he jumped junior Blake Bell, the heir apparent to Landry Jones, and named Trevor Knight the Sooner’s opening day starter. Some writers assumed that Bell, AKA “the Belldozer”, and his 6’6” 256lb frame lacked the passer skills to manage Oklahoma’s entire offense and would be was limited to the goaline/short yardage package he excelled at in his first two seasons.
Two games into the season, Stoops pulled Knight who has struggled throwing the ball, and replaced him with Bell. In Bell’s first (and only) start two weeks ago, Tulsa decided to load the box and use blitzes to stop the Sooner’s run game. What they failed to do was account for Bell who torched them for 451 yards and 4 TDs on 30 of 43 attempts. Bell looked poised in the pocket as he moved through his progressions and delivered precision balls to receivers all across the field. Nine Sooner receivers collected at least one reception in the game. Give credit to Bell who never doubted his ability and when given the chance proved he could succeed as a quarterback at this level. Stoops rewarded his hard work by naming him the starter for the Notre Dame game.
The biggest problem with Knight, and the main reason he was benched, was his inability to take advantage of the Sooner’s outstanding receiver corps. The Sooner’s top two receivers, Sterling Shepard and Jalen Saunders, have combined for 5 TDs in three games and 283 yards. (Saunders racked up 15 catches and 181 yards last year against the Irish, while Shepard mustered only one catch for 15 yards.) Their counterpart, senior Jaz Reynolds, has big play speed which he showed with his 80 yard reception against Tulsa, and Durron Neal, the Sooner’s fourth wide receiver, could easily start on any team in the Big 12. If Bell continues his accurate and efficient passing expect Stoops to employ more 4 wide receiver sets, spread defenses and exploit the overabundance of talented pass catchers on his depth chart.
In 2012, most analysts predicted Oklahoma’s high powered offense would roll over the Irish and send Domers back to South Bend with a reality check. The critics were wrong because they overestimated the strength of Oklahoma’s offense and too easily dispelled the talent of Notre Dame’s defense. Unfortunately for Irish fans their prediction may prove more accurate to 2013’s matchup.
Oklahoma’s offense has a powerful running game built on the strength of their offensive line and the talent of their running backs. With Bell looking impressive against Tulsa (and don’t say it’s just Tulsa because they beat Notre Dame three years ago), this unit appears poised to explode. Notre Dame’s defense on the other hand looks flat and overmatched in its four contests thus far. The unit sorely lacks leadership and in some positions, talent.
In order to slow down Oklahoma, the Irish need to stop the run, a task they have failed to accomplish against lesser opponents this season. The front 3/4 must play their gaps and eat up enough blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays. A key matchup to watch is the All-American battle between Louis Nix and Gabe Ikard. Nix will face his toughest challenge of the year against Ikard and the excellent guards to his left and right. How well Nix disrupts the interior of the Sooner’s offensive line will determine how effective the Irish are at stopping Oklahoma’s rushing game. The return of Sheldon Day will also be huge.
If Oklahoma picks up big yards on the ground, Bob Diaco will be forced to blitz to stop the run which leaves Notre Dame’s defensive backs in man coverage with Oklahoma’s wide receivers and the middle of the field wide open. With Bell’s accuracy and his receivers’ speed, it’s only a matter of time before they break a big play.
I know I sound like a downer, but the truth is, I really want the Irish to win this game. I want them to right the ship and show the nation that this team can compete year-in-and-year-out. But I cannot overlook the defensive struggles. The confidence and tenacity of the 2012 defense has been replaced by skepticism and uncertainty in the 2013 version. It seems that the players are waiting for someone to step up and make a play. Oklahoma will not help them solve their issues. Let’s hope we keep it close.