With Blake Bell leading the charge for the Oklahoma Sooners, the Fighting Irish defense is going to be faced with its toughest challenge of the young season. Due to OU's ability to run and throw the ball, Notre Dame will be in for a long afternoon.
A year ago the Fighting Irish were the tougher team, going to Norman, Oklahoma looking to impose their will on the finesse-focused Sooners. What a difference a year makes, as the Irish have lost the punch that punctuated their 2012 beatdown of coach Bob Stoops' team.
Defensively, Notre Dame has taken several major steps back; going from a team ranked near the top of every major defensive category in 2012 to a middling unit at best during the current season. The Irish defense exists in a vortex where both youth and experience are combining to pull the unit away from success.
Where youth is concerned, uncertainty with respect to adjustments, coverages and fits have created issues. On this play notice the new, true freshman starter, Jaylon Smith (No. 9):
On the motion adjust, another new starter, safety Elijah Shumate, drops to the deep third as the other safety, Mathias Farley, checks for Smith to slide closer to the formation and drops down in the box. The Irish are set to play Cover 3 with Farley buzzing down into flat coverage, Smith and fellow linebacker Jarrett Grace playing the inside hook-to-curl and Carlo Calabrese playing the weak-side flat zone.
Instead of the four underneath defenders and three deep-third defenders, what occurs is Smith chasing the flat route, while Farley drops into the same area, leaving Smith's coverage zone, the defense's left-side hook-to-curl, wide open:
That is where Michigan's Jeremy Gallon finds his opening, and the completion itself was a solid play. Notre Dame then compounds the defensive missed assignment by failing to tackle, allowing the touchdown to be scored.
For Oklahoma, taxing Cover 3 is something the Sooners are no stranger to in the passing game. Here, Blake Bell has trips to his right. and although the defense is holding a Cover 2 shell, on the snap the safety spins down to cover the flat. This leaves the corner with two vertical threats, too far for the middle safety to help. Thanks to the linebacker jumping the shallow cross, it's ultimately a touchdown.
The Sooners are going to put some special pressure on the inside linebackers and push them to operate in space. Oklahoma's offensive coordinator, Josh Heupel, will force the linebackers to expand horizontally, then push them to decide between the running back swing and the wide receiver shallow cross. Notre Dame is going to have to figure out what to concede in pass coverage and then push to tackle in space, which is something the Irish have not done particularly well this year.
In theory, the smart play here is for the Irish to go with more nickel and dime packages to combat the threat of Oklahoma's passing attack. Unfortunately, the Sooners have shown a re-dedication to getting physical at the point of attack—and therein lies the problem.
Oklahoma still works tempo into its offensive attack, and tempo, coupled with its quick usage of the "Sooner Formation," creates a need for some run-stopping ability. And that means linebackers.
Both Damien Williams (back from a suspension) and Brennan Clay will power the Sooners' ground game against Notre Dame in South Bend. Both are physical running backs who follow the blockers and can make one cut and get up field. The Sooners are going to run zone at the Irish, and with the linemen pushing to the second level, there will be success in the run game.
Heupel's offense also brings Blake Bell to the table, a quarterback capable of scooting out of the backfield. Bell made his college football bones as the "Belldozer," working in short-yardage situations and as a primary run threat upon entering the game prior to 2013.
Now, after showing his arm off against Tulsa with a very vanilla game plan, look for Heupel to pressure the Irish with Bell's dual-threat ability. That means run-action fakes, packaged plays, some zone-read plays and even working the Belldozer out of the Sooner Formation on occasion.
Stoops' team is averaging 50 rushing attempts a game, more than the Irish have seen this season, as is the 80-plays-a-game pace the Sooners look to employ. That pacing is going to help with substitutions and handcuff Notre Dame's ability to match personnel and get into effective defensive sets.
Oklahoma is going to exploit the Irish defense in multiple ways. The Sooners are going to use motions and formations pre-snap to try and confuse Notre Dame and force missed alignments and missed assignments. Stoops' team is also going to expose the soft underneath coverage of the Irish linebackers.
And, ultimately, despite all of the finesse and scheming, the Sooners are going to try and see just how tough the Irish defense really wants to play. Last year, Notre Dame rose to the challenge and the Sooners disappeared. This year, Oklahoma has the better hand, and the Sooners plan on playing it against the Irish.