Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Oklahoma Complete Game Preview
The script for Saturday's showdown between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame closely resembles the 2012 edition.
Oklahoma enters the contest as the favorite, with Notre Dame familiarly relishing its role as the disrespected underdog.
And like last season's matchup in Norman, Okla., this meeting has BCS implications written all over it. A Notre Dame loss would place the Irish's BCS aspirations on life support, while a victory would keep them in the thick of the chase.
Doing so isn't a remedial task, as the 14th-ranked Sooners are off to their first 3-0 start since 2011, which includes a 51-20 victory against Tulsa two weeks ago. And one would assume having the bye week to prepare for Notre Dame will be a positive for head coach Bob Stoops and Co.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is in the throes of a relatively uneventful four-game stretch in which a slew of seemingly non-fixable issues has presented itself.
A 100th-ranked rushing attack, a suspect secondary and stagnant offensive stretches have plagued the Irish thus far, particularly during a monotonous 17-13 victory against Michigan State last week.
Will those issues be exploited and embarrassingly revealed by Oklahoma?
We'll see come Saturday.
Here's what you need to know about the game.
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Place: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: Notre Dame IMG Radio Network, SoonerSports.com
Spread: Oklahoma by 3.5, per VegasInsider.com
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
1. Contain Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell
If there's one overarching weakness of Notre Dame's defense through four games, it's defending mobile quarterbacks.
That lesson in itself should have Bell, a true dual-threat, champing at the bit to get on the field, as Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner tore the Irish defense apart to the tune of 376 total yards—82 of them rushing—and one scoring run.
While Bell didn't earn his first start of the 2013 season until the Sooners' third game of the season against Tulsa two weeks ago, his numbers spoke for themselves: 27-of-37 passing for 413 yards, four touchdown passes and 24 rushing yards.
Should Bell do to the Irish defense what Gardner did, Notre Dame could be in for a long afternoon.
2. Execute in the Red Zone
Through four games, Notre Dame ranks 112th nationally in red-zone offense.
Concisely, that's atrocious.
Head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin don't seem to have any faith in the running game near the goal line, as they've experimented with a variety of empty sets within the 20-yard line. However, quarterback Tommy Res has failed to put the ball in the end zone, as the Irish have just four passing touchdowns in 14 trips to the red zone.
Wasted opportunities and possessions will be key ingredients in a toxic formula not only against Oklahoma, but also against each remaining opponent on the 2013 slate.
Oklahoma Keys to Victory
1. Exploit a Weak Notre Dame Rushing Attack
During a 30-13 home loss to Notre Dame last season, Oklahoma allowed 215 rushing yards to the Fighting Irish.
Things appear drastically different this season, as Notre Dame ranks 100th nationally in rushing offense, cranking out an average of just 113.3 yards per game on the ground.
The Sooners could take a page out of the Michigan State playbook, as the Spartans loaded the box in an effort to force Rees to beat them with his arm. While they didn't earn a victory, the plan worked to perfection: Rees completed just 14 of 34 passing attempts for a career-low 142 yards.
If the Oklahoma secondary plays well in man coverage with a stacked box, Rees and the Irish offense will be held to a similar stat line.
2. Attack the Middle of the Field
Life without Manti Te'o hasn't been ideal for the Notre Dame defense.
Without his tremendous athleticism at inside linebacker, the middle of the field has become a consistently vulnerable spot for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit.
Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese as a tandem at the inside linebacker spots was so ineffective that Jarrett Grace was promoted to a starting role, while Fox and Calabrese returned to their tag team ways of old.
While it requires patience and discipline from an offense, moving methodically down the field while taking advantage of the lack of athleticism and quickness from the heart of the Irish defense will pay dividends for the Oklahoma offense.
Notre Dame Players to Watch
Tommy Rees, QB
As frustrating as it may be at times for both fans and the Irish offensive coaching staff, everything Notre Dame does offensively begins and ends with Rees.
That's especially true with the lackluster rushing attack the country has seen thus far.
And the book is out on how to defend Rees: Crowd the line of scrimmage and force him to beat you in man coverage. The result isn't always pretty, and that's what opposing defenses desire.
As I mentioned earlier, Michigan State executed that game plan to near perfection. Should Oklahoma mimic the Spartans' performance, a victory should be all but assured.
The Running Backs
Kelly has been very political when addressing the state of the running back position, as has his decision making concerning the position.
During the preseason, George Atkinson III was touted as the Irish's No. 1 option, though that notion was quickly put to rest after two rather disappointing performances to begin the season.
Following Atkinson, it appeared Amir Carlisle was making a surge toward claiming the "starter" label, though that hasn't worked out, either.
Now, it seems as if Cam McDaniel has taken a firm grip on the job. Whether he maintains that stronghold remains to be seen. What fans should be looking for is whether the group as a whole can increase its production against the Sooners Saturday afternoon.
A mediocre output from the unit will lead to more stagnant offenses for the Irish.
Full Depth Chart: click here
Oklahoma Players to Watch
Blake Bell, QB
Commonly referred to as the "Belldozer" for his role as a short-yardage weapon the past two seasons behind former starting quarterback Landry Jones, Bell has since taken hold of the Sooners' starting job.
Trevor Knight was unsatisfactory during the Sooners' first two games of the season, opening the door for Bell, who produced a mesmerizing state line in the team's 51-20 victory against Tulsa two weeks ago.
Completing 27 of 37 passing attempts for 413 yards and four touchdowns may have been unexpected, but it has proven that Bell is more than just a glorified fullback.
But it's his mobility that could prove lethal against an Irish defense that has fits against dual-threat quarterbacks.
The Defensive Front Seven
As will be typical for the Notre Dame offense all season, how well it can run the football will be a telltale sign of the team's odds of earning a victory.
All odds are pointing to Oklahoma winning that battle at the line of scrimmage, as the Sooners rank 18th nationally in rushing defense, allowing an average 100.7 yards per game on the ground.
While that statistic has been accumulated against three inferior opponents—Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa—it's still a number to be aware of.
While Notre Dame has encountered difficulties running the football this season, the Irish remain as the Sooners' stiffest test to date.
Full Depth Chart: click here
What They're Saying
Brian Kelly on the threat of Blake Bell as a rusher:
From a scheme standpoint, they put you in a position where you have to cover a lot of different scenarios. You're put in a very difficult position when you can be running the football and have options to throw as well. That constant bind that the running quarterback gives you is a stress on your defense. We've had that for the last couple of weeks. Our staff and coach (Bob) Diaco have done a great job of formulating the plan and we're going to have another great run this weekend.
Kelly on Bell's capability as a passer:
He threw it to really fast receivers. He's got an outstanding receiving corps. You know, he's got a nice touch on the ball, a good presence about him. He looked like a thrower, not a runner. I know he's a big, physical, strong kid, and I think he was used last year more in the goal line offense. He's much more than a goal line offense quarterback. He's a skilled passer of the football, and I think he maybe got a reputation that is not fitting of who he is. I think he was a five-star quarterback, and he can throw the football. There's no question about it.
Kelly on his offense's struggles running the ball:
Again, the last three weeks have been a real challenge for us in the running game. We certainly have to run the ball better. We know that. I think everybody in this room and America knows that. We think the circumstances are such that we're going to continue to work at it in practice, and we know we have to be better at it. ... We're working on 3rd-and-short. We're working on being more efficient, executing better. I think the things that we have to be better at are some of the things we've talked about. We have to be better at 3rd-and-short.
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops on his last trip to Notre Dame Stadium in 1999:
More than anything, I remember leading in the third quarter by 16 and looking around and there were too many happy faces meaning there were guys who thought they had this one and really realizing that we hadn't truly learned how to compete yet for four quarters.
Stoops on whether last season's Notre Dame game prepared Bell:
I think that game alone with all the other experiences he's had in the past couple of years being out there in critical situations gave him an opportunity to be able to handle this in a positive way and to not be shaken at all by it. He's a great player and he's been in a lot of critical and important situations, and he's handled them well. So yes, it does give him an advantage in that way.
Despite being 3-1, Notre Dame has been rather disappointing this season.
In fact, 3-1 feels more like 1-3 or even 0-4. Each contest has been too close for comfort and has been disappointing in nature because the Irish have yet to play an "elite" opponent.
The offense has been lackluster—that's an understatement—and the defense is simply a fraction of what it was during the team's improbable run to last season's BCS National Championship Game.
With an Oklahoma team arriving in South Bend, Ind., that has been firing on all cylinders in each phase of the game, Notre Dame fans have reason to worry.
But remember this: The Irish are 15-2 in their last 17 games. Somehow and someway, Kelly and Co. find ways to win each and every week.
It's rarely pretty and the phrase "style points" is even rarer, but the team just wins. It's that simple.
And considering that Oklahoma has played three extremely inferior opponents en route to its 3-0 start, I like Notre Dame's chances a little more than most.
Las Vegas likes the Sooners, but I'm taking the Irish in an excruciatingly close game that will likely come down to the last possession.
Prediction: Notre Dame 20, Oklahoma 19
Note: Notre Dame players had not yet been made available to the media at the time of publication.