Ready, set…Sooners! The Notre Dame football team is off to its best start in a decade and faces, arguably (or maybe not arguably) its biggest test of the season this weekend when it travels to Norman, OK to face the 8th ranked Oklahoma Sooners.
The game has been circled in red since before the season started and now it is magnified even more as the true measuring stick for just how good the 2012 Fighting Irish really are. There is even a tinge of irony to the fact that the Sooners are coming off a 52-7 beat-down of Kansas, coached by former Irish head coach Charlie Weis, this past weekend.
OU quarterback Landry Jones passed for 291 yards with three touchdowns to lead the Sooners to the easy victory over the Jayhawks on Saturday. Jones has passed for 1,643 yards while completing nearly 63-percent of his 212 attempts this season. He has 12 touchdowns through the air with just three interceptions. He could have had even bigger numbers, but Jones was pulled from the Kansas game in the second half with the outcome already secured.
His efforts have helped Oklahoma’s offense rank fifth in the nation in scoring offense at just under 45 points a game, but Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly knows the Sooners are more than just Jones.
“It’s one of the most balanced offenses in the country in terms of they can play physical (and) they can throw the ball,” Kelly said in his Sunday teleconference of the Oklahoma offense. “Landry Jones has got those weapons that allow him to be so successful. The offense is certainly about Landry Jones, but more importantly it’s the balance that they have.”
Oklahoma (5-1) ranks 26th nationally in passing offense (288 yards/game), 34th in rushing offense (nearly 200 yards/game) and 17th in total offense (488 yards/game). The numbers are impressive, but it is worth mentioning that along with wins over lowly Kansas and UTEP Oklahoma rolled to 662 yards of total offense against FCS foe Florida A&M.
Oklahoma has an intriguing wrinkle to its offense that has become known at the “Belldozer” package. The short yardage package could be compared to the one Florida used for Tim Tebow when he was still a young back-up.
OU sends sophomore back-up quarterback Blake Bell in the game for goal line situations and it has worked for both him and them. Bell, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 254 pounds, has scored 21 touchdowns in his brief career after rushing for his eighth of this season against Kansas.
“It’s very similar to the package that Stanford uses,” Kelly said of Oklahoma’s short yardage group. “There’s some similarity there. They bring in a jumbo package with some big fellas that can get off the ball. It’s just a big, strong (and) physical unit that’s very talented and it fits in the kind of demeanor that coach Stoops wants to display on offense.”
Bell has rushed for 59 yards on 31 carries this season. He has helped Oklahoma score on 32 of its 33 red zone chances this season. Of those, 25 have been touchdowns. The Sooners score a touchdown about three of every four times they reach the red zone.
The other weapons in the Oklahoma arsenal include leading rusher Damie Williams, who has 552 yards and a team-best seven touchdowns this season. Kenny Stills leads OU with 38 receptions for 472 yards and four touchdowns. He is one of six receivers with double-digit receptions in 2012.
Justin Brown is a dual threat for OU. The receiver has 23 receptions for 290 yards and two touchdowns receiving, while also averaging 19.0 yards on 16 punt returns. That average jumped when he took one back 90 yards for a TD against Kansas.
In fact, Oklahoma returned both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns over the weekend in the win over Weis’ Jayhawks. The Sooners are averaging 17.9 yards on punt returns and an impressive 31.2 on kickoff returns this season.
“We’ve been consistently good all year,” Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops said of his team’s return game after the Kansas victory. “We’ve been at the top of the league, first or second, for quite a while now. We have been consistent with punt returns and kickoff returns. Because of that it’s become a pretty strong weapon for us. The upside is that we have been getting good field position out of it.”
Oklahoma ranks 12th in the nation in scoring defense at just 15.3 points a game. The Sooners are 15th in total defense (302 yards/game), but they are 46th nationally in rushing defense (138 yards/game). While the OU defense is stocked with good players, most alarming thing to look at is where the tackles are going.
Defensive backs Tony Jefferson, Javon Harris and Aaron Colvin rank first, second and fourth on the Sooner defense with 48, 34 and 24 respective tackles. Linebacker Tom Wort is OU’s third-leading tackler with 26, while TFL and sack leader Chuka Ndulue (3.5 and 2.0 respectively) is fifth with 24 tackles.
The Sooners are plus-8 in turnover margin this season and they have allowed just nine sacks through their six games. What is most telling though is how they did in their only loss of the season to Kansas State.
Oklahoma fumbled twice and saw Jones sacked twice in that 24-19 setback to the Wildcats back on Sept. 22. The Sooners out-passed KSU 304-154, but the Wildcats outgained OU 223-92 on the ground. K-State’s Heisman candidate, Collin Klein, rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the win. He was taken down for a loss just once. Klein was also a modest 13-of-21 for 154 passing yards.
Kansas State is far and was the best defense Oklahoma has faced this season. The Wildcats rank 14th in scoring defense (16.1 points/game), 11th in rushing defense (99 yards/game) and 23rd in total defense (325 yards/game). Notre Dame ranks 2nd, 15th and 6th in those respective statistical categories.
Saturday’s game in Norman will mark the second time ESPN’s Game Day show has been in attendance for a Notre Dame game this season. It will also mark the second time the Irish have gone on the road this year to face a top-10 foe. They came out victorious the first time when they beat Michigan State back on Sept. 15.
Oklahoma has played in a lot of big games in recent years, but Stoops says this Saturday’s against the Fighting Irish is big even for them.
“It’s probably the most anticipated game since 2000 when Nebraska came in here (in the) middle of the year ranked number one in the country and we were right behind them at number two,” Stoops said after Saturday’s win over Kansas. “That was a pretty incredible day.”
Nebraska jumped out to a 14-0 lead in that game, but Oklahoma scored 31 unanswered points for the victory. Oklahoma would go on to win that season’s national championship.