Head-to-Head: Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame
| Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Last year, Notre Dame allowed its first rushing touchdown of the season to the “Belldozer” in one of his four carries on the night. He was 1-for-1 passing for eight yards. This year, the Irish will have to deal with Sooners quarterback Blake Bell a lot more. Bell is coming off a winning effort against Tulsa in which he threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns on 27-of-37 passing in his first career start. Irish coach Brian Kelly was clear in his weekly press conference that the Irish view Bell as a passing threat, not just the rushing threat he was last year.
The 6-foot-6, 252-pounder under center is just one part of Oklahoma’s explosive offense. The Sooners are averaging 490.3 yards-per-game this season. Sophomore receiver Sterling Shepard leads the team with 11 receptions and 146 yards on the season and reined in 15 passes for 181 yards last year against Notre Dame. However, the Irish got the win by keeping everything in front of them. Bell does not have the resume of former Sooner Landry Jones, but the Irish will have to account for his ability to extend plays with his legs or take off with his legs.
It seems as though Notre Dame has gotten things together just in time in the secondary, as last week’s solid performance bodes well for how the Irish will handle Bell and the Sooners. If Notre Dame can get pressure on the quarterback, the back line is likely to find an interception from the inexperienced Bell.
The Sooners are second in the Big 12 with 271.1 rushing yards-per-game, largely on the effort of senior running back Brennan Clay. Clay has accumulated 284 yards on 45 carries, good for 5.8 yard-per-attempt. Oklahoma also has three other rushers with at least 110 yards this season and Bell has added 55 yards on the ground himself.
Notre Dame’s defense matches up well with Oklahoma’s running attack, though. The Irish have limited their opponents to 114.2 yards-per-game this season. Oklahoma is likely to gain more than the 15 yards it managed last season against the Irish, but Notre Dame’s stout defense can limit the Sooners’ effectiveness on the ground. Bell’s size and mobility could be an issue though, based on Notre Dame’s early-season struggles against mobile quarterbacks Connor Reilly of Temple and Devin Gardner of Michigan.
SOONERS OFFENSIVE COACHING
As Sooners coach Bob Stoops approaches the all-time victory record at Oklahoma (currently held by Barry Switzer), it is hard to pick against his offensive coaching staff. Stoops has racked up 17 coach of the year mentions, including eight on the national level. Stoops has coached Heisman winners along the way and trotted out a fearsome offense almost without fail. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is stiff competition, but given that the Irish are still trying to find the right 11 to put on the field, Notre Dame is playing from behind in this category.
SOONERS SPECIAL TEAMS
Redshirt junior kicker Michael Hunnicutt has hit eight of his nine field-goal attempts this year, although his long is 44 yards. Junior kicker Nick Hodgson has sent 15 of his 22 kickoffs for touchbacks, which could take George Atkinson and the Irish return game out of the equation. Junior punter Jed Barnett is averaging 44.1 yards per punt this season, while senior receiver Jalen Saunders has a return average of 13.5 yards in eight punt returns this season.
SOONERS SCHEDULE (3-0)
Aug. 31 Louisiana-Monroe W 34-0
Sept. 7 West Virginia W 16-7
Sept. 14 Tulsa W 51-20 Sept 28 @ Notre Dame
Oct. 5 TCU
Oct. 12 vs. Texas
Oct. 19 @ Kansas
Oct. 26 Texas Tech
Nov. 7 @ Baylor
Nov. 16 Iowa State
Nov. 23 @ Kansas State
Dec. 7 @ Oklahoma State
Senior quarterback Tommy Rees and the Irish passing attack put on a miserable performance last week against Michigan State, although multiple Spartan pass-interference penalties may have played a part in preventing Notre Dame from connecting on its passes. The good news for the Irish is that Rees probably will be better. In his prior three games the senior quarterback had averaged 326 yards through the air.
If Irish freshman receiver Corey Robinson can carry over his breakout performance while TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels get back to their productive ways, Notre Dame could use its passing attack to pull off the upset. It won’t be easy, though. Oklahoma is first in the Big 12 in pass defense efficiency and second in total scoring defense, having allowed only nine points-per-game through three contests. Sooners redshirt senior safety Gabe Lynn leads the team with two interceptions and also has a fumble recovery on the year. Granted, Notre Dame brings more to the table than University of Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa, who rank 77th, 72nd and 74th in the nation in passing offense. Notre Dame ranks 28th, but will have to avoid turnovers. Oklahoma has brought down an interception in 73.5-percent of its games under Stoops.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
Irish coach Brian Kelly has listed five running backs atop Notre Dame’s depth chart heading into the matchup against Oklahoma, so freshmen Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant will presumably join juniors Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson in the running back rotation against the Sooners. The depth-chart magic by Kelly is a recognition of the fact that no Irish back has gotten it done this year. Atkinson leads the team with his average of five yards-per-carry, but he only has 24 rushes. McDaniel leads the team in rushing attempts and rushing yards with 45 and 169, respectively.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, leads its conference in total defense (291.3 yards-per-game), third-down defense (27.3-percent) and rush defense (100.7 yards-per-game). Senior linebacker Corey Nelson leads the Sooners with 20 tackles on the year and has three tackles-for-loss. Given Oklahoma’s hot start in run defense, and the fact that Notre Dame has five options in the backfield but none competent enough to secure the job, Oklahoma holds the edge here.
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Brian Kelly executed his game plan last week en route to a win against the Spartans. With nine defenders stacking the box on many plays, Kelly instructed the Irish to throw it over the heads of the Michigan State players and challenge the corners in man-to-man coverage. The offensive production was extremely muted for the Irish, but Notre Dame did draw flags from many of its attempts to connect down the field. Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has had notable success with his units in the past, most notably when he was with the Sooners originally from 1999-2003. Having returned to Oklahoma last season after serving as the head coach at Arizona, Stoops coached his defense to a disappointing season in which the Sooners allowed 398.3 yards-per-game.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
Senior punter Kyle Brindza won the game ball for his fourth-quarter punts against the Spartans, but he averaged only 42.8 yards on four punts. Brindza missed his second field-goal attempt of the season against Michigan State, but remains a reasonably reliable option. TJ Jones showed signs of discomfort at punt return last week, dropping one punt and running into another, although the Irish recovered both. Oklahoma has surrendered only 114 return yards on six kick returns, but Atkinson always has an outside shot of making a big play on special teams.
IRISH SCHEDULE (3-1)
Aug. 31 Temple W 28-6
Sept. 7 @ Michigan L 41-30
Sept. 14 @ Purdue W 31-24
Sept. 21 Michigan State W 17-13
Sept. 28 Oklahoma
Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State
Oct. 19 USC
Oct. 26 @ Air Force
Nov. 2 Navy
Nov. 9 @ Pittsburgh
Nov. 23 BYU
Nov. 30 @ Stanford