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Oklahoma downs Notre Dame, 35-21

Brian Hartnett | Saturday, September 28, 2013

A trio of early turnovers got No. 22 Notre Dame off to a nightmarish start, and the Irish were never quite able to recover, as they fell to No. 14 Oklahoma, 35-21, on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Oklahoma (4-0) took the lead just 49 seconds into the game when senior linebacker Corey Nelson intercepted Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees’ pass on third-and-7 and returned it 24 yards for the Sooner touchdown.

On the first play of Notre Dame’s second drive, Rees’ pass over the middle was tipped by senior linebacker Aaron Colvin and intercepted by redshirt sophomore linebacker Frank Shannon, who returned it to the Notre Dame 32-yard line.

The Sooners moved the ball down the field quickly and scored after just four plays when senior running back Damian Williams ran it in from 11 yards out to put Oklahoma up 14-0 with 12:15 still remaining in the opening quarter.

With 5:25 to go in the second quarter and Notre Dame marching toward Oklahoma’s end zone, Rees saw another pass tipped and intercepted, this time by redshirt junior linebacker Julian Wilson on the Sooner 12-yard line.

Oklahoma then finished out the half by pushing down the field on a 10 play, 88-yard touchdown drive. Sooners redshirt junior quarterback Blake Bell converted a pair of third downs using both his legs and his arm and then put the Sooners in the end zone with a 26-yard touchdown strike to senior receiver Lacoltan Bester.

Wilson’s interception provided a momentum shift at a time when it looked like Notre Dame was poised to tie the game.

Late in the first quarter, the Irish had settled down and scored on a methodical 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that concluded with a six-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Jones. The drive saw the team move to a dual-quarterback set, as senior quarterback Andrew Hendrix took command for three plays.

Additionally, Notre Dame had forced a turnover of its own on the possession prior to Wilson’s interception. After starting at its own 9-yard line, Oklahoma moved the ball into Irish territory, but Irish junior linebacker Ishaq Williams and graduate student Carlo Calabrese stopped Bell short on a fourth down at the Notre Dame 43-yard line.

Rees finished the first half 6-for-13 with 52 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, making him the first Irish quarterback in 10 years to throw three interceptions in a half.

After a good offensive start and some timely defensive stops in the second half, Notre Dame was down 27-21 and had the Sooners facing a third-and-3 at their 46-yard line with a little over 12:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. But Bell found sophomore receiver Sterling Shepherd on a short pass, and Shepherd rushed past the Notre Dame defense for a 52-yard touchdown. Bell and Shepherd reconnected on a two-point conversion to put Oklahoma up 35-21.

Up to that point in the half, the Irish looked like they had established a rhythm on offense.

Notre Dame took little time to get on the board in the second half, as junior running back George Atkinson burst through the line and outran the Sooner secondary for an 80-yard touchdown run, the longest by a Notre Dame player since 2000, with 12:44 left in the third quarter.

Later in the third quarter, the Irish moved down the field on the back of two strong runs from Atkinson, who had a career-high 145 yards on the ground, and a 13-yard completion from Rees to junior receiver DaVaris Daniels. Rees completed the scoring drive by finding wide-open junior tight end Troy Niklas on a 30-yard touchdown pass with 14:10 in the fourth quarter to make it a 27-21 game.

In the third quarter, the Irish defense, which surrendered 450 yards on the day, looked to have found the same red zone success that had made it so successful last season.

Oklahoma took advantage of a 40-yard kickoff return after Atkinson’s touchdown run to earn advantageous field position. The Sooners moved the ball down to the Notre Dame 6-yard line, but a third-down stop by Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt forced them to attempt a 27-yard field goal. Redshirt junior kicker Michael Hunnicutt converted the field goal to give Oklahoma a 24-14 lead.

After a three-and-out by Notre Dame, Bell went out with a leg cramp on the second play of Oklahoma’s possession. Backup quarterback freshman Trevor Knight came in and led the Sooners down to Notre Dame’s red zone. After a third down stop at the Notre Dame two-yard line, Hunnicutt converted another field goal, this one from 19 yards, to put Oklahoma up 27-14.

Notre Dame’s drives stalled late in the fourth quarter, as the Irish went three-and-out on their final three possessions of the game.

Oklahoma sealed the victory with a 10-play, 38-yard drive that ate up the last 5:39 of the game.

Rees finished the game 9-for-24 with 104 yards. Behind the strength of Atkinson, the Irish rushed for a season-high 220 yards on 29 attempts. Freshman running back Tarean Folston ended the game with 43 yards on two carries. Senior receiver TJ Jones led Notre Dame with 42 yards on four receptions and one touchdown.

On the other side, Bell was 22-for-30 with 232 yards and two touchdowns for the Sooners. Bell was also the team’s second-leading rusher, as he gained 62 yards on 12 carries. Shepherd led Oklahoma with 83 yards on five receptions and one touchdown.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu