NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Notre Dame finally ran the ball, but a big rushing day was not enough to overcome a pair of big early miscues in Saturday's 35-21 loss to Oklahoma. The Fighting Irish rushed for a season-high 220 yards, including a career-high 148 from George Atkinson, but two Tommy Rees interceptions on Notre Dame's first two possessions put ND in a 14-point hole that was too big to overcome.
The first Oklahoma interception gave the Sooners (4-0) a 7-0 lead just 49 seconds into the game. Notre Dame (3-2) faced 3rd and seven at its own 28 when Rees was hit by Eric Striker as he was trying to throw. The fluttering ball was intercepted by linebacker Corey Nelson, who raced to the end zone untouched for the game's first score.
Rees was intercepted by middle linebacker Frank Shannon on Notre Dame's very next offensive play on a ball deflected by Aaron Colvin. Shannon's 12-yard return put the Sooners in business again at the Irish 37. Damian Williams' 11-yard TD run four plays later made it 14-0 Oklahoma with just 2:45 gone on the first quarter game clock.
The Irish punted on their next possession and then forced an Oklahoma put after that. They got back in the game with an 80-yard touchdown drive that featured backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix on a handful of plays. Freshman running back Tarean Folston had the play of the drive when he gained 36 yards on 2nd and nine from the Sooner 39. Rees connected with Jones two plays later on a six-yard TD pass after the Irish had been called for a false start on 2nd and goal from the one.
Notre Dame was driving late in the second quarter when Rees was intercepted for a third time in the first half. The drive reached the 24 before Rees was intercepted by Julian Wilson at the 12. The Sooners would again turn the turnover into points on the scoreboard.
Blake Bell hit Lacoltan Bester with a 26-yard touchdown strike with 42 seconds left in the half to complete a 10-play, 88-yard drive. The Sooners converted a pair of third downs on the drive, including a 12-yard gain by Bell on 3rd and eight at the OU 47,
After forcing Oklahoma to punt after the first possession of the second half, Notre Dame needed just one play and 13 seconds to hit pay dirt. George Atkinson cut the Irish deficit to 21-14 when he ran up the middle and then bolted down the left sideline for an 80-yard TD run. The last time an Irish running back had a run as long was Terrance Howard at West Virginia in 2000.
The Sooners started their next drive at the Irish 48 after a 40-yard kickoff return. They would drive to the Irish six before Stephon Tuitt stuffed Bell in the backfield for a three-yard loss on 3rd and two. Michael Hunnicutt then connected on a 27-yard field goal to make it 24-14 Oklahoma with 8:11 left in the third.
It looked like Notre Dame might catch a break when Bell had to leave the game after being tackled at the end of an 11-yard run on 2nd and 10. Bell was helped up and headed to the locker room and replaced by Trevor Knight, who started OU's first two games of the season. Knight used a read-option play to bolt 30 yards to the Irish 26. Hunnicutt then hit a 19-yard field goal seven plays later to make it 27-14 Sooners at the 2:43 mark of the third quarter.
The Fighting Irish answered with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Rees capped it by hitting a wide open Troy Niklas with a 30-yard TD pass to pull the Irish to within six points with 14:10 to play in the game. It marked the tight end's fourth career touchdown on his 14th career reception.
Oklahoma struck quickly on its ensuing possession though when Bell connected with Sterling Shepard on a 54-yard touchdown pass. The play came on the fifth play of the Sooner drive on 3rd and three to give the Sooners a 35-21 lead.
Ben Councell became Notre Dame's first casualty of the new targeting rule in 2013 when he hit Sooner running back Brennan Clay in the face mask with the crown of his helmet to break up a third down pass. The targeting rule has zero tolerance for such hits and Councell was ejected. The 15-yard penalty gave Oklahoma the ball at the Irish 49, but they punted three plays later.
Rees entered the game with just two interceptions in 141 attempts this season, but he had two in his first three attempts of the game and finished three picks while completing just 9-of-14 attempts for 104 yards on the day. Hendrix was 0-for-1 passing with 10 rushing yards.
Bell was 22-of-30 for 232 yards and two touchdown passes. He also ran the ball 12 times for 59 yards. Oklahoma did not commit a turnover in the victory.
Atkinson's previous rushing high was a 123-yard day in last October's win over Miami in Chicago. Oklahoma amassed 450 yards of total offense to Notre Dame's 324.
Oklahoma has now won 37 consecutive games when leading at halftime.