The trip to Norman, OK will be full of pitfalls for the visiting Irish. Here are six prime concerns for Irish fans to consider.
Notre Dame and Oklahoma rarely play one another, with Notre Dame holding an 8-1 series advantage. The last time the Irish and Sooners came together it was Oct. 2, 1999. The Irish trailed early in a rain-soaked Notre Dame Stadium, but rallied to defeat the Big 12 foe 34-30. Thirteen years later, Notre Dame sojourns to the plains of Oklahoma to take on a red hot Oklahoma offense and a talented defense that’s capable of dominating if motivated. Here are the six areas for concern, and how they can be alleviated.
During the game versus Brigham Young, the Cougars scored a ridiculously easy touchdown when Notre Dame defenders became confused with which players to cover in the end zone. Result: wide open touchdown in the back of the end zone. A colossal miscommunication and failure. Later in the game, Notre Dame was lucky when the pass rush forced Riley Nelson to short arm a throw to an otherwise uncovered wide receiver completely behind the Irish secondary. Again, an unacceptable miscommunication, but the pass rush caused an incomplete pass.
When playing a vastly more talented Oklahoma team, such miscommunications will cost Notre Dame the game. End of story. One of two things must happen. Notre Dame must dumb-down its coverage schemes or the players and coaches must suddenly get on the same page. Unfortunately, considering it’s the middle of the season, the former is far more likely to work (to an extent) because if the players are confused at midseason, well, they are likely to be confused for the entire season. Not good. The down side of basic coverage is Oklahoma has a senior quarterback that’s capable of getting hot against generic defenses, which leads to the next point.
Applying pressure with only three or four rushers
To help the back seven, the front four must continually apply pressure – without help – to mitigate big plays and force long yardage third down attempts for the Sooners. No quarterback enjoys stepping into a throw if there is a 303-pound defensive end staring him down from four feet away that’s going to blast him right when he releases the football. Say hello to Stephon Tuitt. If Notre Dame needs to rush five or six players to apply pressure to Landry Jones, more than likely this game is headed in the Sooners’ favor. Few teams slow down Notre Dame’s pass rush, will Oklahoma be able to? Similarly, a short field for Jones and his teammates would cause major issues.
Shanked punts/mishandled punts
College football games often switch momentum with a shanked punt or punt return man failing to handle a punt. The result is a sudden change situation where the opposition receives a gift possession in great field position. With a punter that certainly shanked a few punts early this season and true freshman punt return man anything could happen. This is one area the coaching staff simply must trust the players. It’s not really about coaching, but players simply executing plays they practice countless times every week.
Playing from behind
Notre Dame could find itself behind during the first half, and perhaps even be down ten or more points. How will this impact the Notre Dame players’ psyche? Will they be able to bounce back and show the resilience displayed against Purdue, Michigan, and Brigham Young when plays went wrong? In particular, how will a young Everett Golson respond to playing against a team that can score in bunches and he knows he must be a big part of the reason Notre Dame scores at least in the twenties to win the game?
Much of this answer will take place behind closed doors. The psychology of college coaching will be effect on Saturday, but most of the ground work began this past Sunday. Situational coaching begins long before kickoff. The Irish staff must be ready for difficult situations. One of the ways to offset a deficit and keep Golson level headed comes up in the next point.
Staying patient with the running game
Notre Dame’s offensive line continually improved this season, and it continually improves during each game, quarter by quarter. Of note, Notre Dame averaged 6.46 yards per rush during the third quarter. That statistic displays true dominance. The fourth quarter shows Notre Dame with a pedestrian 3.91 yards per carry average, but it’s also when the opponents know the Irish will run the ball and stack the line to stop it. Thus, it’s a solid statistic as well. Bottom line, Notre Dame’s offensive line delivered in the clutch to close out games. So, will the Irish coaching staff stick with the rushing attack if Oklahoma gets a lead? It would be wise to do so.
Not only would running the ball take pressure off of Golson, but it rests the defense and mentally fatigues the opposing offense as they twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines while watching helplessly. As long as Notre Dame is within three to seven points late in the game, that’s the type of situation Golson always thrived as a high school player. No reason to believe he’s going to change in college. We may just find out tomorrow.
Sacks kill drives and often times cause fumbles. Further, if Golson continues to get hit he may be gun shy after a concussion. Who knows? Just cannot predict. This means that the right side of the Notre Dame offensive line must play several notches higher than it has in recent weeks in pass protection. In short, the pass protection versus Stanford was horrendous. Awful. Atrocious. Oklahoma’s front seven will bring the heat because they watched the Notre Dame offensive line versus Stanford’s front seven, too.
To help offset this concern, Notre Dame can certainly run the ball (yes, this means designed quarterback runs as well, risky or not), but it might need to run more screens, bootlegs, and max-protection schemes to keep Golson upright.
I could well be wrong, but I believe the Irish will pull the upset. Oklahoma is a good football team, but it did not yet face a defense any place near as talented as Notre Dame’s defense. As long as Golson stays healthy, the running game produces 150 or more yards, and the offense/special teams do not turn it over, the Irish will prevail.
Notre Dame 24 Oklahoma 20