Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame: 10 Things We Learned from Sooners' Win over Irish
The Oklahoma Sooners finished up a huge Week 5 win against host Notre Dame, 35-21. The win inches Oklahoma closer to the AP top-10 and cements their status as a fringe contender for the BCS title.
Let's take a look at 10 things we learned about the Sooners' victory over the Fighting Irish.
Blake Bell Is the Starter (So Long as Someone Reminds Him to Stay Hydrated)
It appears Trevor Knight has lost his starting job for good.
Blake Bell started against real competition for the first time this year, and he was impressive. Bell completed 73 percent of his passes at a 7.7 YPA rate, connecting for two TDs (including a 54-yard catch-and-run by Sterling Shepard in the fourth).
Bell wasn't asked to do too much, and he was efficient and effective with what he was given. Most importantly, he took care of the football, avoiding any turnovers or big mistakes.
Bell did come out for a series after pulling up with cramps; he was replaced by Knight, who led the team down the field for a field goal. But Bell returned and finished the game in impressive fashion. Sooners head coach Bob Stoops did (half-jokingly) call him out for needing to hydrate more to prevent future in-game cramps.
Although Knight is the better runner (he busted loose for a 30-yard run on his first snap), Bell was impressive on the ground as well, finishing with 59 yards at a 4.9 YPC clip. Given his superiority when it comes to passing efficiency, it appears the Sooners' starting QB role is Bell's job to lose.
The Sooners May Need to Work on Their Rushing Defense
As big of a statement win as this was for the Sooners, their performance when it comes to stopping the run was not impressive.
The Sooners allowed 220 yards on the ground to the Fighting Irish at an awful 7.6 YPC clip. The worst moment came at the hands of George Atkinson III (14 carries, 148 yards), who broke free for an 80-yard TD run early in the third quarter. Tarean Folston had a 36-yard carry of his own to set up Notre Dame's first touchdown.
The Sooners love to sit in sub-packages in order to "get their best athletes on the field," as Mike Mayock put it in the NBC broadcast.
The problem with that is it leaves Oklahoma susceptible to the run, as smaller, quicker defensive backs can get pushed off their blocks more easily than linebackers. This is something coach Bob Stoops will have to consider when the Sooners face elite rushing teams.
The Sooners Defense Is Opportunistic, Has Big-Play Potential
It's always tough going on the road against an elite opponent, even in a not-so-loud stadium like Notre Dame's.
The best way to quiet the opposing fans and get momentum on your side? Make a big play on the opening drive.
The Sooners defense did just that when OLB Eric Striker came unblocked on a blind-side blitz on third down. Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees never saw him, and Striker hit the passer mid-throw.
The ball popped up into the air and landed right in the arms of LB Corey Nelson, who waltzed into the end zone for a pick-six.
Rees then threw another pick on his next throw which set up an 11-yard touchdown run by Damien Williams. Later in the first half, he threw his third pick of the game, setting up another Oklahoma touchdown.
Rees had only thrown two interceptions all season heading into this game. Three picks in the first half might signal Rees' regression back into "Tommy Turnover" territory, but we should also give credit to a ball-hawking, opportunistic Sooners defense.
Twenty-one points off turnovers in a game Oklahoma won by 14? The game ball should go to Oklahoma's passing defense for making big plays when big plays were there to be made.
Tommy Rees Is Streaky
Well, we already knew this—maybe this list should be called "10 Commonly Held Beliefs That Were Reinforced by the Sooners' Win over the Fighting Irish."
Rees started off the season hot, posting three games with over 300 yards to kick off the season. In the two games since, he hasn't topped 150 yards.
Saturday, he had just 104 yards on just 37.5 percent passing at 4.3 YPA. Not good.
The Sooners defense deserves credit, as it sat in the nickel package and had good coverage for much of the game. But Rees needs to display some consistency if the Fighting Irish hope to win games in the second half of the season. If Rees performs like he did Saturday, the Irish won't be able to compete against elite competition.
Oklahoma Looks Like a National Title Contender
This would have sounded crazy a few weeks ago.
After being largely overlooked in the preseason, Oklahoma proved itself to be a very good team. Yes, they came into the game 3-0, but skeptics would point out that they had faced middling competition.
Now? They have their first signature win in a long while, on the road against a ranked team.
Oklahoma is inching closer to Top 10 in the AP rankings, and they will definitely be among the title contenders if they continue to perform like they did Saturday.
George Atkinson III Is Notre Dame's Best Running Back
One of the bright spots for the Fighting Irish was the performance of George Atkinson III.
The junior established himself as the Irish's best back with a breakout game in which he displayed both speed and power.
Atkinson busted loose for an 80-yard touchdown early in the third quarter for Notre Dame, displaying breakaway speed in finishing the run. He capped the game with 148 yards on 14 carries (10.6 YPC) and also had a 29-yard kickoff run.
Hopefully, the Irish will trust Atkinson more in order to take some of the burden off Tommy Rees to carry the offense.
Both Teams Need to Improve Offensively on Third Down
It's not a new or interesting fact that third-down conversion rate is intrinsically tied to the success of a football offense, but it's still a fact.
Another fact is that both of these teams struggled on third down in this game. Yes, that's a testament to their respective defenses, but if either team hopes to win a bowl game, they'll have to do better offensively on third down than they did Saturday.
The teams combined to go just 9-of-26 on third down. That may be on their coaching staff to figure out some simple and effective short-yardage plays (the Irish were effective in stopping the Sooners on short-yardage run plays, including a stuffed fourth-down conversion attempt by Blake Bell), but the players also need to execute.
It wouldn't be surprising to hear that both of these teams are focusing on converting third downs during this week of practice.
Sterling Shepard Is a Weapon
Sterling Shepard was the most effective skill position player for the Sooners this week, playing a big role in the outcome of the game.
Shepard hauled in a 54-yard catch-and-run and displayed his blazing speed on the play in pulling away from the Notre Dame defensive backs. The play capped a 75-yard drive to answer Notre Dame's own 75-yard TD drive and essentially put the game out of reach.
Shepard then caught the ensuing two-point conversion to put the Sooners up two touchdowns (the last points scored in the game).
In addition to the big touchdown, Shepard proved to be a weapon on underneath routes with his sideline-to-sideline speed, where he was a mismatch against the Irish LBs and safeties. His separation skills make him an enticing option for Blake Bell going forward.
Ben Councell Will Probably Miss the First Half Against ASU
Notre Dame LB Ben Councell was ejected from the game for targeting a receiver and leading with the crown of his helmet.
It was a brutal play on which Councell appeared to hit with an intent to injure. Yes, he's a football player with an instinct to hit hard, but he needs to abide by the rules and tackle with sound fundamentals instead of trying to kill a receiver going over the middle.
As Notre Dame FC Brian Leigh pointed out, Councell will miss the first half of next week's game against Arizona State University if the ejection is upheld.
The rule may not be perfect, but its intention (emphasizing player safety and minimizing concussion-inducing hits wherever possible) is good, and ejection in this case was warranted.
The Sooners Exorcised Their Notre Dame Demons
Although these two teams have only met 10 times in their history, the matchup has been one-sided.
The Fighting Irish had won nine of 10 matchups between the two teams, including a 30-13 victory over the Sooners last season.
This win turned the tides in favor of the Sooners and proved that Oklahoma deserves to be considered a legitimate threat this season. With Bell protecting the ball and playing efficiently, and the defense ball hawking and taking advantage of mistakes, the Sooners made a statement by beating a team they've historically struggled against.