NOTRE DAME, Ind. - A game that gave Notre Dame an opportunity to make a statement quickly turned into a game to forget Saturday afternoon. Before Brian Kelly and his Fighting Irish knew what hit them they were staring straight into a 14-0 hole that eventually resulted in a 35-21 loss to Oklahoma.
Tommy Rees had his second pass attempt of the game intercepted and returned for a touchdown just 49 seconds into the game and then the senior was intercepted again on the first play after the Irish got the ball back. The Sooners quickly turned that pick into points too and the Irish could never catch up.
"We don't want to put this whole thing on Tommy," Kelly said after Notre Dame's first home loss in nearly two calendar years. "It's everybody. We always go back to the quarterback around here, but this is about 11 players."
"It's natural for everybody to go back to the quarterback, but there's 11 players out there," Kelly continued. "We just have to do a better job of taking care of the football."
The Irish had committed just three turnovers through their first four games of the season, but after another Rees interception in the second quarter they had three in the first half alone.
Not A Fast Start...Again
Kelly talked earlier in the week about getting off to a faster start, but that obviously did not happen against the Sooners. The Irish trailed 14-0 before settling down and making it 14-7 after Tommy Rees's six-yard touchdown to T.J. Jones. Kelly was asked afterward if he has a diagnosis for the team's low pulse rate at the start of the last four games.
"If I knew what that was I would not be standing here right now," Kelly snapped. "I'd be doing something else. This is my 23rd year as a head coach. You never expect to not pick up the simplest of stunts and have your quarterback get the ball stripped. You never expect not to run the right route when you're supposed to."
"You never expect those things, but they happen," he continued. "That's why you have ulcers in this business. So you go back (and) you've got to be communicating. Because ultimately it falls on me."
Kelly said communicating better and coaching better are the ultimate cure for what ails the Irish.
The Running Got Going
The Irish had not surpassed the century mark rushing since going for 188 in the season-opening win over Temple. They finished with 220 rushing yards on the day though, including 88 in the first quarter alone. George Atkinson led the way with a career-best 14 carries for 148 yards. Kelly said earlier in the week that Atkinson had to run more physically.
"We told him that," said Kelly. "We told him if he wanted to be the starter that he can't get tackled by his ankles. He can't be the guy that goes down."
"I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball," Kelly continued. "He's got to do that every week. He shouldn't be tackled by his ankles and he showed that today. I hope he brings that game with him each and every week, because it was sure fun to watch George Atkinson today."
Atkinson's previous career-high rushing day was last season against Miami. The highlight of his day against the Sooners was an 80-yard touchdown run not quite a minute and a half into the second half.
It marked Notre Dame's longest run since Terrance Howard bolted for an 80-yard score against West Virginia on Oct. 21, 2000. Notre Dame had won 15 straight games when rushing for at least 200 yards. The Irish also outgained the Sooners 220-212 on the ground and had won 45 of their last 47 games when outrushing a foe.
The Hendrix Factor
Backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix made his first appearance of the season against the Sooners. Hendrix came in during Notre Dame's fourth drive of the game during the first quarter to aid in his team's first scoring drive of the game.
"We wanted to be a little more diversified (and) help our third down package," Kelly said when asked if Hendrix's appearance was specific to Oklahoma's defense. "(We wanted to) make sure that now you have to defend the quarterback and really just simply give us some more options in third and short."
Kelly noted Notre Dame's struggles in past third down and short yardage situations. Hendrix had five carries for 10 net yards. He was 0-for-1 passing.
"He's got some work to do," Kelly said of Hendrix. "We've got to continue to work with him, but I think it gives us some things that the defense has to defend as well with him in there."
The Fighting Irish now have a lot of work to do if they are to go to a BCS bowl this season. Notre Dame has only earned back-to-back BCS bids once - in the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
"(I) don't really care about that stuff," said Kelly when asked about BCS hopes. "That's for you guys to talk about. I've got a football team here we're trying to develop and work with. You guys can have your own comments and decide what that means and you can put in whatever bowl you want. We're dealing with our players. We've got to coach better (and) we've got to develop our players better."