Yesterday, we hit on the Fighting Irish's front seven and the massive role they play in this weekend's game. Now, the secondary is on the table as the guys who will have their hands full.
In a vacuum, this Oklahoma team is built to burn Notre Dame. The Sooners' approach to football is largely one-dimensional—pass, pass and pass some more—and that is a recipe that will cause problems for the Notre Dame secondary.
Before we get into this, the good thing for Notre Dame is this game is not played in a vacuum. Its front seven gets to participate. This is not a seven-on-seven tournament where there is no pass rush; this is a football game.
However, when you're looking at the Oklahoma passing game versus the secondary (or even the back seven,)of Notre Dame, there is a clear Crimson and Cream advantage. Oklahoma, as a team, is going to spread you out and hit you with route combos that force defenders to make a choice on who they are going to cover, and then its quarterback will pick which open receiver he wants to hit.
The Sooners have nearly perfected using two basic concepts to get players open in coverage: stretching you side to side and stacking defenses vertically. Horizontally, they expand your defense with formations; they make you walk linebackers out of the box and put extra defensive backs into the game, and they isolate bodies in space.
Once the play starts, the vertical stacking comes into play. Against zone coverages, the Sooners flood the coverage area with short, intermediate and deep options. That forces zone defenders to make a decision on which routes to carry and which routes to jump. A zone defender with two options in his zone can only cover one of them; he makes a decision, and then Landry Jones goes to the uncovered man to pick up yardage.
You can see it even more when you get into specifics, such as the short, intermediate and deep route combinations that paralyze defenders.
We start out with the trip set. Notice the amount of ground out there for the three defenders circled, plus the high safety (out of the picture) to cover. A lot of green.
As the play starts, we see the linebacker fly up at the flat defender to take away the screen. The other two receivers are taking off upfield. Remember this linebacker flying up.
Where is the guy who is supposed to be underneath this pass? That would be the linebacker who went flying up to stop the screen pass. He's not there to stop this throw from underneath. That blur to the far right? That's the outside receiver getting deep on a streak. We do have the high safety reading the play and getting to the ball, albeit too late to stop the play.
The original flat defender is still not in the frame. The curl defender makes an appearance as he tries to get out, reacting to the thrown ball. The safety is still coming downhill from the hash. The corner is now in the frame after realizing the ball had been thrown.
Ultimately, what the Sooners got was a very easy 15-yard completion. They didn't have to crack anyone's skull to do it, they simply flooded that side of the field with possible threats and let the defense make the decision for Landry Jones.
Notre Dame has yet to be tested in this fashion. The Irish can only beat the teams they play, which they have done, and it certainly isn't their fault that Denard Robinson, Andrew Maxwell and Josh Nunes are not reliable passing threats. So the Irish are into late October before they face their first real test through the air.
On a positive note, the secondary has had time to settle in, work communication and get comfortable playing ball. Now we'll see what they can do when they are put on front street. This Oklahoma scheme is designed to tax teams' pass coverages. It is set up to apply pressure and get receivers open downfield for easy completions.
The Sooners will stack you vertically; they'll run rub routes, crosses and screens to find a weakness to exploit and get their playmakers in space.
Going into this game, don't buy the noise about team speed being the Irish's downfall. Notre Dame can run just fine. The real challenge here won't be tempo or the caliber of the OU receiving corps. The real game to watch will be how the Fighting Irish handle a scheme specifically designed to get people open against a defense and force the defenders to decide where the ball is thrown.
Stanford and Michigan State both brought passing games predicated on play-action sucking up defenders to create openings to hit. Michigan brought in a passing game that was built around Robinson's improvisational skills, run-action quarterback fakes and the threat of the scramble.
Now, Oklahoma enters with a true passing game based around the receivers running crisp routes to get open against the defense.
This matchup will likely be the story of the game. If the secondary can protect deep-to-short and tackle well, Oklahoma will be in for an ugly game that will likely be a dog fight. That's a game Notre Dame can win. However, if the Fighting Irish defensive backs give up the big play, they'll be in for a long evening in Norman.
As we stated earlier, if you're a Notre Dame fan, the positive thing here is that this isn't seven-on-seven; the front seven gets to play. If they can rattle Landry Jones, they most certainly can lift a tremendous weight off their secondary's shoulders.