And in that corner… The Oklahoma Sooners

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Broken streaks. Stolen slogans. Biggest game in a decade. It’s the kind of hype most Notre Dame fans didn’t see possible heading into this season, but with the Irish at 7-0 and No. 5 in the country, just about every fan under the Golden Dome is hoping for this magical ride to continue.

If it will, Notre Dame will have to pull off their most impressive road win in a decade. Beating Bob Stoops’ Sooners, a squad that has an outrageous 79-4 record at home, will be a herculean task. To give us a better idea of what the Irish are up against, I’ve brought in the Oklahoman’s Jason Kersey, who covers the daily beat on the Sooners. In an incredibly busy week, Jason has gone above and beyond for us, and he’s laid out some really strong stuff.

Let’s get right down to it.

1. Before the season, this game looked like a good one. Now it looks like a great one. Most had Oklahoma pegged as an elite team, not many had Notre Dame there. Bob Stoops called this the biggest game his team’s had since 2000. Could that possibly be the case? Just how fired up are the Sooners (and their fans) for this game?

I definitely think — especially from the fans’ perspective — the Notre Dame game is the most anticipated home game since Nebraska in 2000. That game had a special feel to it because the Sooners were nationally relevant again after the largely forgettable 1990s. In Bob Stoops’ second year, the Sooners were ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings, and Nebraska came in at No. 1. Add in the classic Oklahoma-Nebraska, Barry Switzer-Tom Osborne rivalry from the Big Eight era, and it just made the whole thing such a special moment in Sooner football history.

OU has been in a couple top-10 battles since then — the most memorable coming when the 2008 Sooners beat No. 2 Texas Tech in a rout, which ultimately vauled the Sooners into the national title game — but the reason Nebraska in 2000 and Notre Dame in 2012 are being compared is mostly because of history. This Saturday’s game was already going to be special for OU fans because it pits traditional powers, the Irish snapped Bud Wilkinson’s 47-game win streak and the fact that Notre Dame football hasn’t visited Norman since 1966.

But the excitement surrounding this game has increased exponentially because of how good Notre Dame has played so far. With OU having one loss, this game is viewed by everyone around the program as a huge opportunity to knock off a top-5 team on national television and jump all the way back in the national-title conversation.

OU players really don’t seem to know or care all that much about OU’s 1-8 record against Notre Dame, the busted win streak or the Fighting Irish’s 13 national titles. They’re fired up to face a great team at home with so many of their 2012 goals on the line.

2. Notre Dame feels battle-tested after beating seven legitimate opponents to start the season, even if some of those teams have disappointed. The Sooners have played three mediocre teams (UTEP, Florida A&M, and Kansas ) looked really good against Texas and Texas Tech, while losing to a K-State team that was flying under the radar.

The common thought is that the Sooners are playing their best football at an opportune time. Is that the case? If so, what did this team need to straighten out?

Yes, Oklahoma is absolutely playing its best football right now, and yes, it couldn’t come at a better time. With a No. 8 BCS ranking and a pretty tough remaining schedule, the Sooners are right in the thick of the BCS race, which seemed crazy to even think about after the first three games of the season. Less than two months ago, this very team was clinging to a 10-7, fourth-quarter lead on UTEP for crying out loud.

The early-season struggles can be attributed to a lot of things, but I think the biggest causes were inexperience at offensive line and receiver, which each caused QB Landry Jones to have some early problems, and adjusting to Mike Stoops’ tweaked defensive system.

Entering the Notre Dame game, though, OU’s defense looks excellent. The receivers have developed quickly, and the offensive line has jelled. The Sooners’ line lost two seniors — center Ben Habern and guard Tyler Evans — to season-ending injuries right around the time fall camp started. Those guys had 59 career starts between them.

3. Oklahoma’s defense has been solid with Mike Stoops back in Norman. It certainly isn’t the Sooners’ biggest or most physical group, but the secondary seems to be a strength and they’ve been pretty good against the run. Is Notre Dame’s resurgent running game its best shot to put up points on the Sooners? Is there a match-up that looks good for the Irish?

The defense has really been pretty good for most of the season, with a few breakdowns here and there early on. UTEP running back Nathan Jeffery had a big game in the opener. Kansas State had success in the fourth quarter that allowed the Wildcats to win, but for the first three quarters, OU really handled Collin Klein and the KSU offense pretty well.

The biggest difference in the OU defense between its first three and last three games has been takeaways. The Sooners only forced one turnover in the first three, but over the last three, they’ve got nine takeaways.

The secondary has definitely been a strength. Mike Stoops’ scheme really funnels plays to the defensive backs, which is why they are many of OU’s leading tacklers. Juniors Aaron Colvin and Tony Jefferson have been the defense’s top players this season.

Considering how OU’s 2011 season ended, it’s crazy to think how good the secondary is playing right now. That very unit — and most of those very players — was largely responsible for OU’s three losses last year.

I think Notre Dame will give itself its best chance at success by finding ways to stay on the field and control the clock with the run game. With how good this defense is playing right now, it won’t be easy, but it definitely isn’t impossible.

4. On the other side of the ball, Landry Jones has played a lot of football. Oklahoma is scoring a ton of points, doing it with an efficient running game and a strong passing game. Obviously, K-State had some success against the Sooners’ offense, but where do you see Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell attacking Notre Dame’s defense? Will they utilize the hurry-up?

Kansas State ’s defense was successful against OU because it forced Landry Jones into mistakes, which he’s shown a propensity to make when he’s put under that kind of pressure. He’s looked much, much better and more poised the last three weeks in the pocket, even under pressure, but Notre Dame is an entirely different animal with that big-time defensive front.

I don’t think the Irish have seen anything quite like OU’s no-huddle, pass-heavy offense this season, though, so I think Sooner coaches will try to take advantage of that and keep Notre Dame on its heels. If OU can shock-and-awe Notre Dame early with some big plays — which they’ve been capable of in both the pass and run games — I would think that gives the Sooners a big edge for the rest of the game, especially with the home crowd. Not saying that will be easy at all, because I know how good the Irish are defensively, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see OU dial up some home-run plays early.

5. I was surprised when I saw the gambling line open up with the Sooners a commanding 9.5 point favorite. The Irish certainly haven’t been winning with style points, but does this seem right to you? What’s the key to an underdog Irish team beating Oklahoma ? How do the Sooners avoid the upset?

I honestly wasn’t very surprised by the line. Notre Dame is a top-5 team and has absolutely earned that ranking by winning all its games through a pretty tough schedule, and an Irish win definitely isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

But right now, Oklahoma is playing at such a high level on offense, defense and in special teams — last week vs. Kansas, OU returned both a kick and a punt for touchdowns in one game for the first time ever — that I just don’t see the Sooners losing Saturday.

I think the most likely scenario resulting in a Notre Dame win is if it follows Kansas State ’s model of putting major pressure on Landry Jones, making him uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing some turnovers. That could possibly keep the game low-scoring enough for Notre Dame to win it.

On offense, the Irish need to run the ball effectively, convert lots of third downs and control the clock. Brian Kelly said during his news conference Tuesday that Oklahoma is extremely tough to beat when it is scores lots of points and makes big plays. As good as they’ve been defensively, I’m just not convinced the Irish have enough experience against this offensive attack to limit it the way Notre Dame would need to in order to leave Norman with national-title hopes still intact.

***

For more from Jason, check out all his excellent work in sports section of the Oklahoman, the Sooners Sports Blog, or his Twitter feed @JasonKersey.

 

Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles

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Irish coach Brian Kelly declared Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush healthy for this weekend’s top-15 matchup with USC. Of course, anytime facing the No. 11 team in the country, Kelly wants to have his starting quarterback at his disposal, even if Wimbush is entering only his sixth collegiate start.

Kelly alluded to Wimbush’s inexperience and continued struggles in the passing game while also pointing out his broader successes.

“[Wimbush is] developing at the quarterback position,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In these bye weeks, we evaluate and self-scout. He’s been really productive in a number of areas for us: moving the chains, fourth down conversions, third downs, big plays. He’s done a lot of really good things to get us to where we are today.

“There has to be some improvement in some other areas, but from a productivity standpoint, he’s done some really good things and he’s only going to get better.”

In other words, the Irish coaching staff sees Wimbush as still developing, yet offering drive-sustaining and points-creating production.

The need for growth and development is obvious. Wimbush has completed only 52.3 percent of his passes this season and averages 5.92 yards per pass attempt. Both those figures fall below expectations, even for a first-year starter.

RELATED READING: A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On passing game struggles

Most are pretty familiar with those shout-inducing moments often yielding points. Wimbush has accounted for 11 of Notre Dame’s 23 plays of more than 30 yards. (Seven passes, four rushes.) Aside from the big plays, though, the positives take a little more time to measure. How pivotal has he been to the offense otherwise?

Wimbush has accounted for 59.0 percent of Irish first downs and 63.6 percent of successful third down conversions. (These rates factor in only the first five games of the season, considering Wimbush missed the 33-10 victory at North Carolina due to a grade one right foot strain.)

Put into other words, despite Notre Dame’s rampant rushing success, its most-consistent method of moving the ball downfield involves Wimbush, be it his arm or his legs.

First downs:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 26 13
Georgia 18 11
Boston College 19 12
Michigan State 21 14
Miami (OH) 21 12
North Carolina 27

Third down conversions:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 6-of-13 2-of-9
Georgia 5-of-18 5-of-17, including two first downs gained from drawing pass interference penalties.
Boston College 9-of-18 5-of-11
Michigan State 8-of-14 8-of-10
Miami (OH) 5-of-13 1-of-6
North Carolina 5-of-16

Notre Dame has converted a total of 41.3 percent of its third downs, while Wimbush is at 39.6 percent. (That team total does include the victory over the Tar Heels.)

As for fourth downs the Irish are 7-of-10 and Wimbush is 1-of-2, successfully converting a fourth-and-11 in the first quarter against Miami (OH) by connecting with sophomore receiver Chase Claypool for 21 yards to get Notre Dame into the red zone. Three plays later, Wimbush rushed for a one-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

With Wimbush, Notre Dame has a dynamic playmaker capable of turning nothing into something, although he also sometimes turns a something (perhaps an open receiver) into a nothing (overthrown).

Facing the Trojans defense, that former aspect will be needed. USC ranks No. 36 in the country in passing efficiency defense, allows only 35.5 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 50) and has given up touchdowns on a mere 41.4 percent of opponents trips to the red zone (12 of 29).

That isn’t even mentioning the Trojans penchant for forcing turnovers. They have taken away the ball 16 times in seven games, including 10 interceptions.

QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not

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After a week off from most football activities last week and a week off from schoolwork due to fall break this week, No. 13 Notre Dame is near full health for its primetime matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday.

“We had six days of not being in contact situations after the North Carolina game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “You get the physical rest and then you get the mental rest this week, without having to be in the classroom. It’s clearly a benefit, not only for this game, but the next five games after this.”

Most notably, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has recovered from a grade one right foot strain.

“There are no questions about his health so we can put that to rest,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent.”

All of the Irish running backs should be past any ankle concerns, as well. Junior Josh Adams was battling two “cranky” ankles as Notre Dame finished the first half of its season, while junior Dexter Williams missed the victory at North Carolina due to a sprained ankle, just as sophomore Tony Jones did a week earlier against Miami (OH).

The bye week brought one new injury, though. Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini injured his knee in practice, a status Kelly deemed “day-to-day.” Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reports the meniscus injury could sideline Martini into November.

Martini and junior Te’von Coney have split time to date, complementing seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill in the linebacker unit. With Martini potentially missing time, Coney will naturally receive more. He has already made 42 tackles this season, trailing only Morgan (by two) and ahead of Martini by three.

Kelly also ruled out an in-season return from Elijah Taylor. The junior tackle suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice.

On Kevin Stepherson
The bye week may have benefited sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson the most. He missed the season’s first four games and had not contributed much in the subsequent two, catching just one pass for a loss of three yards. A year ago, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Kelly attributed some of Stepherson’s struggles upon his return to a version of rust from inactivity.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said. “It was preseason for him in a lot of ways.”

With more time focused on those aspects, Kelly said he expects Stepherson’s role to increase in the season’s second half.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)

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One of the three heretofore remaining undefeated opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule fell this weekend, largely due to its own mistakes. All in all, Irish opponents went 7-4 but are expected to go 3-5 this coming weekend, not counting Notre Dame’s matchup with USC.

Temple (3-4): The Owls were favored by 9.5 points, but gifted a 28-24 win to Connecticut. Two separate Temple turnovers provided half of the Huskies scoring. A fumble set up a two-play, nine-yard Connecticut touchdown drive, and an interception courtesy of Owls junior quarterback Logan Marchi was returned for a touchdown. Interceptions continue to plague Marchi’s debut campaign as a starter. He has now thrown nine in the last four games.

If he can avoid such a mistake at Army this weekend (12 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), perhaps Temple can overcome its six-point underdog status. A combined point total over/under of 49.5 indicates an expected final of 28-21.

Georgia (7-0): The Bulldogs ran right by Missouri, to the tune of a 53-28 score and 370 rushing yards on 51 attempts, part of an offensive explosion of 696 total yards. No Georgia rusher gained more than 100 yards, while six ran for at least 30, and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed 18 of 26 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. All in all, the Bulldogs had possession for a whopping 39:36.

Georgia certainly does not need a break, but it gets one this weekend, anyway.

Boston College (3-4): The Eagles finally came out ahead in a tough game against one of the ACC’s better teams, topping Louisville 45-42. The shootout was certainly unexpected: The over/under was a mere 57 points.

Boston College’s record does not do its season justice. The Eagles played Notre Dame close into the second half, hung with Clemson into the fourth quarter and were never phased by Virginia Tech. They just could not put together a complete performance.

Thanks largely to running back AJ Dillon, that changed this weekend. Dillon ran for 272 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries, most notably including this piece of disrespect:

A quietly-solid Virginia awaits Boston College (12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The Cavaliers are favored by seven with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math hints at a 28-21 conclusion. It is awfully tempting to put some faith in the Eagles in that situation.

Michigan State (5-1): The Spartans’ 30-27 win at Minnesota was not as close as the field-goal margin implies. The Gophers put together two touchdown drives in the final six minutes to turn a blowout into a paper’s version of a tight contest.

Michigan State running back LJ Scott finally broke loose, taking 25 carries for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The Spartans needed his solid performance to help cover up three turnovers. They got away with those mistakes against Minnesota, and may be able to this weekend against Indiana (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and next week at Northwestern, but such mishaps would likely prove crippling vs. Penn St or at Ohio State in November.

Michigan State is favored by seven against the Hoosiers, with an over/under of 44 pointing toward a 25-19 result. It should not be that close, unless Indiana follows the Gophers’ example with late, meaningless scores.

Miami (OH) (2-5): This is not the season Chuck Martin expected. Without starting quarterback Gus Ragland, the RedHawks fell 17-14 to Kent State, one of the MAC’s two bottom-dwellers. Miami already lost to the other, Bowling Green, just a week ago.

Junior backup quarterback Billy Bahl completed 12 of 29 passes for 174 yards, throwing two touchdowns along with two interceptions.

Martin and the RedHawks will look to save this escaping season against Buffalo (2:30 p.m. ET, Watch ESPN). Favored by three, they would be grateful to be on the right side of a 26-23 afternoon.

North Carolina (1-6): The Tar Heels lost 2017 continued with a 20-14 defeat to Virginia. In this week’s illustration of just how dismal the day was for North Carolina, it managed all of 46 passing yards. The Tar Heels’ next viable hope of a win comes after a trip to Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and a weekend with Miami (FL). A bye will then precede a Thursday journey to Pittsburgh. That may also be their last legitimate chance of an FBS-level victory this season.

The Hokies are favored by 21 points and will likely exceed that and a hypothetical 36-15 margin.

Junior quarterback Sam Darnold leads a talented USC offense into Notre Dame this coming weekend. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

USC (6-1): The Trojans slipped past Utah 28-27, stopping a Utes’ two-point conversion attempt in the final minute. The win should set up USC to cruise to the Pac-12 title game. Junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-50 passing. Perhaps more importantly, he did not throw any interceptions, though the Trojans did lose three fumbles.

Running back Ronald Jones took 17 carries for 111 yards and a score.

USC visits Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) as a 3.5-point underdog. A 31-28 Saturday night would hardly leave anyone lamenting a lack of entertainment.

North Carolina State (6-1): The Wolfpack made it six victories in a row after its season opening one-possession loss to South Carolina. North Carolina State’s defense led the way in the 35-17 win at Pittsburgh, holding the Panthers to 95 rushing yards on 32 attempts. Pittsburgh managed only 5.1 yards per pass attempt and converted just four of 15 third down attempts.

The Wolfpack now enjoys a bye before traveling to South Bend for what could be a top-15 matchup filled with national implications.

Wake Forest (4-2): The Demon Deacons had the week off and undoubtedly used it to prepare for Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The Yellow Jackets enjoy nearly a touchdown’s advantage per bookmakers’ projections, prevailing in those views by something akin to 27-21.

Miami kicker Michael Badgley hit the winning field goal in the Hurricanes 25-24 victory over Georgia Tech. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Miami (FL) (5-0): The good news: The Hurricanes again used a last-minute, drama-filled drive to notch a winning score.

The obvious news: Beating Georgia Tech should never be taken for granted.

The forward-looking news: Miami has only one genuine ACC challenge left, Nov. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, meaning an undefeated conference slate and a regular season as a whole are both distinct possibilities. That contest will also likely determine if the Hurricanes bring an unblemished record into their matchup with Notre Dame a week later.

The bad news: This week’s opponent, Syracuse, could not be much more confident after beating No. 2 Clemson on Friday. Nonetheless, Miami is favored by 15 with an over/under of 57.5. Here’s an eye on more points than a 36-21 result includes.

Navy (5-1): The Midshipmen rushed for 314 yards on 68 carries against Memphis. That can cover up most anything, but not, apparently, five turnovers. Maybe four, but not five, as the Tigers topped Navy 30-27 thanks to those repeated giveaways.

Navy travels to Central Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network) staring a two-game losing streak in the face as eight-point underdogs. An over/under of 66 points to a 37-29 final.

Stanford (5-2): Oregon was missing its starting quarterback, and it showed. The Ducks threw for only 33 passing yards in a 49-7 loss to the Cardinal. Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst threw for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-21 passing while junior running back Bryce Love ran for only 147 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.

Stanford takes its second bye of the year this weekend, since it started the season a week early overseas.

Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football

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How was your weekend off? Did you catch up on some sleep? Perhaps rake those leaves you had been ignoring?

Of course you didn’t, but let’s pretend you did. And as you did, you kept asking yourself …

Will Brandon Wimbush be healthy enough to start against USC? Actually, skip the enough. Will he be back to 100 percent?
No one in this space should play doctor, so offering insights on the recovery time from a grade one foot strain would be duplicitous and likely inaccurate. Rather, let’s turn to the most trustworthy of sources … Twitter.

The Notre Dame football account (@NDFootball) posted a video Thursday morning opening with Wimbush rolling a few steps and throwing a pass. Presumably, the footage was from a Wednesday afternoon practice.

To say the clip is brief is to say bacon tastes good. Nonetheless, the Irish administrators even allowing the inclusion of the junior quarterback in the video is noteworthy. If he was distinctly limited, there is no chance that would have been showcased.

For now, presume Wimbush to be healthy. By the time kickoff comes Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), he will have had nearly exactly three full weeks of recovery time. If Wimbush is not at 100 percent, he should be close to it. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will inevitably discuss as much during his Tuesday press conference.

Wimbush will be needed against the Trojans. Sophomore quarterback Ian Book played well — or at least well enough, and there’s that pesky e-word again — to lead the Irish past North Carolina, but Wimbush’s playmaking could be the key to getting past USC. The difference between the two is that simple.

During the bye week, was there any depth chart movement?
If there is a time for more-than-minimal reshuffling of the depth chart, it is during the midseason week off. When a team is 5-1 courtesy of a plus-139 scoring margin, moving things around may seem counterintuitive. On some level it is. On another, though, finding a way to get junior cornerback Shaun Crawford on the field even more often would seem a wise decision. Conceivably, moving sophomore Julian Love to safety alongside junior Nick Coleman would create that opening for Crawford.

Two disclaimers here: One, this is mere speculation. Two, the answer to this may actually wait until after kickoff, running contrary to this piece’s weekly theme, but it is also possible it could show up in the depth chart before then.

Will high-flying Syracuse hand Miami (FL) its first loss two weeks before Notre Dame gets the chance to?
It is still a touch difficult to believe. Underdogs by 23.5 points, the Orange beat No. 2 Clemson on Friday, 27-24. Anyone claiming to have seen that coming can go ahead and check the mirror to see how much their nose just grew.

This space certainly did not expect it. In retrospect, this pondering of Clemson’s fate in the College Football Playoff published Friday morning rings particularly prescient now, even if unwittingly so: “A still-proving-himself quarterback (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant) doubts himself and makes another mistake …”

For that matter, only a few paragraphs later, this space predicted Washington State would cruise past Cal on Friday night. Care to guess what did not happen?

With all that in mind, Syracuse overcoming a 14-point spread to beat Miami (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) is a possibility to be recognized. The Orange have the momentum, if nothing else. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are getting by with nothing to spare, winning each of the last two weekends on last-minute drives hinging on extremely difficult catches.

Will Navy respond to its first loss with a renewed focus on the AAC title?
The Midshipmen host undefeated Central Florida at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network. Favored by seven, the Knights are likely to thoroughly dampen any Naval hopes of winning the American Athletic Conference a year after getting routed in the title game. In falling to Memphis this past weekend, Navy obviously lost the tiebreaker in the AAC West, but knocking off Central Florida would keep the Midshipmen in the mix.

Speaking of which, how will Memphis fare Thursday night at Houston?
A three-point spread in Houston’s favor indicates Memphis could fall behind Navy in the AAC standings before the Midshipmen even face Central Florida. If nothing else, the Tigers and Cougars will fill up the scoreboard (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).