Notre Dame and Oklahoma are set to meet for the 11th time when the Fighting Irish host the Sooners this Saturday. The Irish have won nine of the previous 10 games played between the two teams, with the only loss coming in 1956 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Saturday's game will mark the 10th time that at least one of the two teams has been ranked in the AP top-25 national rankings. It is also the sixth time (including last year) that both the Sooners (No. 12) and Irish (No. 22) enter the game nationally ranked. NBC analyst Mike Mayock visited Norman this week to prepare for the game and told Soonersports.com that Saturday's game is big for both ranked teams.
"I think it's a huge game for Oklahoma and it's just as big for Notre Dame," Mayock said. "When you look at Notre Dame, they made it to the national championship (last season) and I really thought that the Oklahoma game was a catalyst a year ago. I think you have two programs that need a big win in a national spotlight."
Notre Dame's 30-13 win over Oklahoma in Norman last year improved the Irish to 8-0 and the win over the traditionally strong program did seem to legitimize the team's national standing for the season.
"They were on the rise at that point, so I think it did a lot for us," ND receiver T.J. Jones said of last year's win. "I think that might have been the point where it finally clicked and you saw the glimpse of greatness that we had the potential to achieve as a team."
Both teams could use a shot of legitimacy this season. Oklahoma is 3-0, but its wins are over Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa. Irish fans know all too well how Notre Dame's 3-1 start has looked. The record looks good, but the on-field play has been sketchy every week and a win over Oklahoma could once again go a long way. Just don't tell Irish quarterback Tommy Rees that.
"We're not too much focused on statement games and all that," said Rees. "For us, we've just got to go out there and execute and find a way to win a football game."
Rees barely saw the field with Everett Golson at quarterback last year in Norman, but he will start Saturday's game. With the Irish lacking a strong running game that produced 215 yards against the Sooners last year, it could be incumbent for Rees to have a big game if the Irish are to pull off a minor upset over OU.
"I think it's important for Tommy to have a big game and lead us every week," said Jones of his quarterback. "This game, granted, is I guess you could say bigger in some instances than other games you may play, but at the end of the day he has to have a great game every week for us to win regardless of who the opponent it."
Revenge could be a factor for Oklahoma after seeing the Irish come in and play far more physically than the Sooners last year, but doesn't everyone get up for the Irish when the game is at Notre Dame Stadium?
"I think everyone comes in here and plays their Super Bowl," Matthias Farley said when asked about OU having a bigger chip on their shoulder after last year. "Because it's Notre Dame at Notre Dame. People come in here and they always play great games and I'm sure Oklahoma will do the same."
Oklahoma was just 4-for-14 on third down conversions against the Irish in last year's game and OU head coach Bob Stoops said better success in that department is a priority this weekend.
"We weren't nearly as good as we needed to be," Stoops said. "They were better at getting the stop and that was a big factor. In critical third downs when you're about to move to scoring position or keep the drive going, then you've got to be able to convert those."
OU's offense is 24-of-50 on third down conversions through three games. That includes a 12-for-16 (.750) conversion rate most recently against Tulsa. Notre Dame opponents are 27-for-61 (.440) against the Irish defense on third downs this year. The Irish offense has converted at a .490 (30-for-61) clip on third down.
The Freshman Is No Ordinary Freshman
True freshman Jaylon Smith has lived up to the billing that brought him to Notre Dame. The Ft. Wayne, IN native will make his fifth consecutive start of the season on Saturday after being thrown into the fire when veteran Danny Spond was forced to give up the game due to a reoccurrence of severe migraine headaches during fall training camp.
"It's impressive that he could come in and do all the things that he's done as a freshman," Farley said of Smith. "He's a very physically mature guy, so I think he's gotten a lot more comfortable in his role throughout the last couple of weeks and he's continued to improve every week. The sky's the limit for him."
Smith's role as the drop linebacker has him covering space and receivers more than rushing passers. He has 11 tackles, including one tackle for loss this season and is listed officially at 6'2.25" and 230 pounds.
"I'm 230 pounds, so from a freshman standpoint I haven't had that full season in the weight room to be able to gather that strength," Smith said. "I really don't want to get too much heavier from where I am now. I love my speed and want to keep my speed, so it's really just getting the most strength that I can."
It seems Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio had an issue last Saturday with a loud speaker that was pointed toward the Spartan bench on the east sideline during Notre Dame's 17-13 victory.
"I was not aware of it," Kelly said on Thursday when asked if he knew anything about it.
A reporter informed Kelly that Dantonio had apparently called a timeout during the game and then complained to a referee about the excess noise near his team. The officials apparently subsequently moved the offending speaker. News of the incident was news to Kelly this week, causing a slight chuckle.
"I'm only laughing, because as you know to get any music in that stadium," Kelly exclaimed. "So I find it a bit unusual for the question."
"Well we're getting our music in the stadium," Kelly continued. "I guess we're making progress there, so we'll be more careful in the future."
Kelly says Dantonio never brought the issue up to him and it is the first time he has ever heard of such a complaint at a Notre Dame home game.
The Penn of the 'Nati
Penn High School has a reputation for being the biggest, strongest public high school in the South Bend area, if not all of Northern Indiana. Penn has an enrollment of more than 3,300 students, which is nearly double the enrollment of the next closest high school in the area (South Bend Adams - approximately 1,800). Penn's most prominent recent alum is former Fighting Irish center Braxston Cave.
Penn and local Catholic high schools South Bend St. Joseph and Mishawaka Marion have long been the three traditional football powers in close proximity to Notre Dame. Cincinnati's Colerain High School, which produced current Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace, is analogous to Penn in Kelly's estimation.
"That's a very similar kind of scenario," said Kelly. "Where you have a large public school like Colerain that does such a great job coaching and developing a program from the Pop Warner program or whatever it's called - the fifth graders (and) the sixth graders - and keeping them in the program and developing them through all those years and running a tight program and developing high school and college players."
Cincinnati high school sports have traditionally been dominated by Catholic schools. Colerain won its first and only Ohio state football championship in 2004. The Cardinals have lost just 13 games since the start of the 2000 season. They lost just five times in Graces' last three years there from 2008-2010.