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Week 5: Oklahoma

Brian Hartnett | Sunday, September 29, 2013

It was the exact opposite of the fast start No. 22 Notre Dame envisioned.

A pair of early turnovers put the Irish in a deep hole just minutes into the game, and they were never quite able to recover, as they fell to No. 14 Oklahoma, 35-21, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Oklahoma (4-0) took the lead just 49 seconds into the game. On a third-and-7, Notre Dame senior quarterback Tommy Rees was hit from behind as he attempted a pass, and the ball went straight into the hands of Oklahoma senior linebacker Corey Nelson, who returned it 24 yards for the Sooner touchdown.

“You never expect not to pick up the simplest of stunts and have your quarterback get the ball stripped,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “You never expect not to run the right route when you’re supposed to. You never expect those things, but they happen.”

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.

“They were kind of freak interceptions, not normal interceptions,” Irish senior receiver TJ Jones said of the first two turnovers. “I think it was Oklahoma just catching a little bit of luck and really capitalizing off our mistakes.”

The Sooners scored four plays after Rees’ second interception, 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 trailing 14-7, Rees saw another pass tipped and intercepted, this time by redshirt junior linebacker Julian Wilson on the Sooner 12-yard line. 

Oklahoma capitalized on the turnover 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 and then put the Sooners in the end zone with 42 seconds left in the half on a 26-yard touchdown strike to senior receiver Lacoltan Bester

The Irish had settled down and scored on a methodical 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive late in the first quarter that concluded with a six-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Jones. 

“No, we didn’t abandon anything down 14-0,” Kelly said. “We stayed with our game plan. I though we stayed with within ourselves, got another score on the board.”

Notre Dame’s opening touchdown drive saw the team move to a dual-quarterback set, as Rees and senior quarterback Andrew Hendrix rotated in and out. Hendrix attempted only one pass but earned 10 yards rushing on five carries in the first half while picking up two first downs for the Irish.

“I think it gives the defense another thing to prepare for,” Rees said of the two-quarterback rotation. “It helps us in certain situations. Obviously, we used [Hendrix] a lot when we needed a couple of yards down in the red zone.”

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

After scoring two second-half touchdowns and limiting Oklahoma’s offense, Notre Dame trailed 27-21 and had the Sooners facing a third-and-three at their 46-yard line with a little over 12:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. But Bell found sophomore receiver Sterling Shepard on a short pass, and Shepard rushed past the Notre Dame defense for a 54-yard touchdown. Bell and Shepherd reconnected on a two-point conversion to put Oklahoma up 35-21.

“I thought we gave up one play that we’d love to have back,” Kelly said. “You know, the quick slant where we let Shepherd inside. Just something that shouldn’t happen.”

Up to that point in the second half, the Irish defense successfully kept the Sooners out of the end zone. Oklahoma advanced to Notre Dame’s 6-yard line and 2-yard line, respectively, on consecutive drives in the third quarter, but key third down stops forced the Sooners to settle for field goals on both drives.

The Irish defense surrendered 450 yards to a balanced Oklahoma offense that gained 212 yards rushing and 238 yards passing. Bell finished the game 22-for-30 with 232 yards and two touchdowns and Shepard added 83 yards on five receptions and a touchdown.

“At the end of the day, we lost the game,” Irish senior cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “Of course there are positives with each loss, but we had too many mistakes and game-changing plays we needed to fix.”

After notching just 82 yards against Michigan State last weekend, the Irish running game looked revitalized against the Sooners, as Notre Dame had a season-high 220 yards rushing on 29 carries. Junior running back George Atkinson led the way with a career-high 148 yards on 12 carries, and freshman running back Tarean Folston added 43 yards on two carries.

“[Atkinson is] 220 pounds, and I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball,” Kelly said. “He’s got to do that every week. He shouldn’t be tackled by his ankles, and he showed that today, and I hope he brings that game with him each and every week because it was sure fun to watch George Atkinson run.”

Atkinson made his mark early in the second half, as he burst through the Oklahoma line and outran the Sooner secondary for an 80-yard touchdown run with 12:44 remaining in the third quarter. Atkinson’s run was the longest by a Notre Dame player since Terrance Howard scored from 80 yards out in 2000.

“I just saw our linemen blocking, and I just did my job,” Atkinson said.

Later in the third quarter, the Irish moved down the field on the back of two strong runs from Atkinson 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 left in the fourth quarter to make it a 27-21 game.

Rees finished the game 9-for-24 for 104 yards, while Niklas was Notre Dame’s leading receiver with two catches for 43 yards.

After falling behind by 14 following Shepard’s touchdown reception, Notre Dame’s offense stalled late in the fourth quarter, as the Irish went three-and-out on their final three possessions of the game. 

“I thought we had a lot of good series where there were three-and-outs and in particular down on the end,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “A year ago, I thought we lost the game in the last half of the fourth quarter, and we were determined not to let that happen this time because it was still a two-possession game.”

Oklahoma then sealed the victory with a 10-play, 38-yard drive that ended at Notre Dame’s 22-yard line and ate up the last 5:39 of the game.

Looking ahead, Kelly said he is more focused on developing his players this season than reaching a particular end result, such as a return to a BCS bowl.

“I’ve got a football team here we’re trying to develop and work with,” he said. “You guys can have your own comments and decide what that means, and you can put us in whatever bowl you want. We’re dealing with our players. We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to develop our players better, and we’ll let you guys decide what that means.”

Notre Dame will look to get back on track when it faces Arizona State on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu