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Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with the Sooners

Oct 26, 2012, 2:47 AM EDT

TJ Jones AP

Moments like this are earned. Big games, premiere Saturdays, they are a product of hard work off the field and fortune on the field. As Notre Dame prepares to play in their biggest game in a decade, and easily their most anticipated since Pete Carroll’s Trojans came to South Bend to battle first-year head coach Charlie Weis’ Fighting Irish, it’s worth remembering that as Herb Brooks once told us, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.”

The table is set for Notre Dame to walk into Norman, Oklahoma and surprise the college football world. It would certainly fit the bill of this improbable season, which has seen the Irish continue to win as this team searches for its offensive identity and matures before our eyes.

Brian Kelly isn’t under the impression that he has a great football team. But his team is ranked No. 5 in the country because they’ve defeated every team they lined up against, and on Saturday night, they’ll have their best opportunity to make another statement. But to beat the Sooners, Kelly knows it’s more about what his team does than anything Bob Stoops‘ squad can do.

“Our guys understand the importance of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday relative to their preparation. The good part for me it hasn’t been a lot about Oklahoma,” Kelly said. “My feeling is that when your team is focused on yourself more so than who you’re playing, that’s the kind of focus you want.”

The Irish have a great deal of respect for Oklahoma, but they also know they control their own destiny this Saturday evening. And that’s what makes this weekend so exciting.

As No. 5 Notre Dame prepares to take off for battle against No. 8 Oklahoma, let’s run through six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers miscellaneous musing before Saturday evening’s 8:00 p.m. ET game.

***

If Notre Dame is going to win, they’re going to have to play better in the red zone.

There are a lot of places Notre Dame’s offense needs to improve. But to win at Owen Field, the Irish absolutely need to cash in their opportunities in the red zone. Right now, Notre Dame doesn’t seem to have a red zone identity. The pieces are there — Tyler Eifert on the fade, Everett Golson‘s legs, a fairly stout power running game — but the results haven’t been.

With the exception of Golson’s interception against Michigan, turnovers haven’t been the biggest problem. Execution has been. Kelly spoke openly about the two areas holding this offense back, throwing the football efficiently and production in the red zone.

“We have to be better on third down throwing the football, and we have to be better in the red zone,” Kelly said. “And those are areas of emphasis, and if we’re better in those two areas, then our efficiency is going to jump up. I’m interested in being more efficient in terms of our passing game.”

A quick glance at the rankings and you’ll actually see Notre Dame’s third down conversion rate isn’t terrible at 48th. But looking at the Irish in the red zone, especially cashing in touchdowns instead of field goals, and that’s a different story.

The Irish are 89th in the country in scoring rate, putting points up only 26 of 34 times, good for 76.47 percent. Scoring touchdowns is much worse though, with Notre Dame only getting six points 16 times. Compare that to Oklahoma, who is leading the country scoring on 97 percent of their trips and converting almost 76 percent of them for touchdowns, essentially get seven points just as often as Notre Dame gets anything.

If the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to win the red zone. Their defense makes that victory always possible, but the offense is going to need to do its part.

“We have to realize the importance of getting down there and putting points on the board,” senior tackle Zack Martin said. “Ten points in four appearances last game is not good enough. That’s not going to beat Oklahoma.”

***

He may not be a terror in the box score, but Prince Shembo is a scary dude on the field.

One of the great stories on the season is the work Prince Shembo has done taking over for Darius Fleming at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position. The junior, who played out of position last year, has been a pass-rushing terror off the edge, while playing stout run defense for a guy many were worried was undersized for the position.

Shembo’s stats might not reflect his work on the field, with his 3.0 sacks modest compared to his impact on the game. But the North Carolina native’s relentless passion, whether it’s screaming about his stolen bike seat or swinging a sledgehammer on the sidelines, embodies the passion, but workmanlike attitude this Irish defense is all about.

“Just do your assignment,” Shembo said this week. “If people try to do things they’ve never done before, that’s when the problems start. Just have confidence and do your job.”

That job will include dealing with Oklahoma’s jumbo quarterback package, anchored by the “Belldozer” sophomore quarterback Blake Bell. Shockingly, Bell doesn’t seem to worry Shembo too much.

“He’s a big guy. 6-6, 260. I squat 600. So we’re just going to go put our pads on and meet him in the hole,” Shembo said this week.

Whether Bell is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds or 6-foot-8, 340-pounds as nose tackle Louis Nix joked, don’t expect this defense to be intimidated, something Shembo credits to his teammates.

“We’ve got monsters on our team. Troy’s a monster, Eifert’s a monster,” Shembo told the Sun-Times. “The more you practice with monsters, the better. If I’ve got to fight a dragon every day — without getting killed, hopefully — I’ll know how to beat the dragon eventually.”

***

The war in the trenches should be won by Notre Dame.

We’re running out of superlatives for Notre Dame’s rush defense. By this time, we all know the unit hasn’t given up a touchdown on the ground yet. But let’s take a look at a team by team breakdown of how well the Irish have done shutting down their opponents compared to their performance against everybody else.

Navy Rushing Yards
Notre Dame: 149.0
Everybody Else: 251.3
102.3 yards below average

Purdue Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 90
Vs. Everyone Else: 169.5
79.5 yards below average

Michigan State Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 50
Vs. Everyone Else: 152.3
102.3 yards below average

Michigan Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 161
Vs. Everyone Else: 232.8
71.8 yards below average

Miami Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 85
Vs. Everyone Else: 132.9
47.9 yards below average

Stanford Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 147
Vs. Everybody Else: 170.5
23.5 yards below average

BYU Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 66
Vs. Everyone Else: 171.4
105.4 yards below average

It’s ridiculous to consider that Notre Dame’s worst comparative game against the run was against Miami, a game where the Irish throttled the ‘Canes 41-3. Saturday night, Notre Dame will certainly be tested at the line of scrimmage, and the Sooners’ running game is effective if not underutilized. The Sooners are averaging a gaudy 5.93 yards per carry, yet only running the ball 33 times a game.

(Edited to add Stanford’s rushing numbers, which detract from the above point, but are actually a bit more nuanced. Stanford has run for over 200 yards against USC, Arizona, and Cal, but their overall numbers are dragged down by 92 rush yards against Duke in a blowout win and 65 yards in their loss to Washington.)

The Irish won’t have the choice to walk away from the ground game, as they’ll need to establish the run early this weekend. And there’s reason to believe they can do it against the Sooners front, an undersized unit that might be the smallest front seven the Irish have faced since playing Navy.

If you’ve got 30 minutes, here’s a great breakdown of the battle in the trenches from the Solid Verbal’s Dan Rubenstein and Oregon offensive lineman Carson York, who is sitting out the season after undergoing right knee surgery. York’s unbiased opinion is favorable for the Irish, and he does a nice job of explaining the intricacies of things like the inside and outside zone running plays, staples of the Brian Kelly offense.

***

He’ll be the best quarterback Notre Dame’s faced this year, but what Landry Jones is going to show up?

Make no mistake, Landry Jones is a talented quarterback. But he’s far from bulletproof in pressure situations. The senior quarterback has put together an impressive career in Norman, thrust into duty as a redshirt freshman after Sam Bradford went down with a shoulder injury. From there, the former Parade All-American has all but rewritten the Sooner record books, holding 13 Oklahoma passing records, including the all-time passing yardage mark.

But Jones, an All-Big 12 quarterback who returned for his senior season after a somewhat disappointing 2011 campaign, reignited some of the criticism he’s taken over the years for big game struggles after the Sooners’ disappointing loss to Kansas State.

The statuesque quarterback, who has yet to log a run for positive yardage on the season, fumbled twice, including one in the end zone recovered for a Wildcats touchdown, and threw an interception in the Sooners’ 24-19 loss.

Jones talked about the struggles he had against Kansas State and the pressure he’s been putting on himself this season back in late September.

“It drives me nuts that we’re kind of underachieving right now,” Jones said after the loss. “I feel like, specifically for myself, I’ve definitely been underachieving this whole year. It’s one of those things that we played a good team in Kansas State and we made mistakes that put us into a position that we couldn’t win.”

Kansas State’s game plan was to flush Jones from the pocket, forcing the quarterback to make mistakes. With Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and an Irish pass rush that already has 19 sacks on the year, expect that to be the part of Bob Diaco‘s thought process as well.

Even with some uneven performances, Jones will still likely hear his name called relatively early in this spring’s NFL Draft. And creit Jones for taking advantage of games against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas to get back in rhythm, putting the Sooners offense in peak form heading into Saturday night’s game, while taking the pressure off himself.

“It was like walking on eggshells, trying so hard to play perfect that I was getting in my own way,” Jones told SI.com. “You can’t play like that. You can’t play like that as an athlete. You just have to not think and just go out there and react and play the way you know you’re capable of playing.”

***

Can Big Game Bob Stoops live up to his name?

There’s no question Bob Stoops earned his reputation as a big game coach. Taking over the Oklahoma program after coordinating Steve Spurrier’s Florida defenses, Stoops quickly turned the Sooners around, going 7-5 in his first season in Norman before running the table in 2000, winning the Orange Bowl and the national championship in his second season.

In Stoops’ first four seasons, he was unparalleled in big games, going 18-2 against ranked opponents, winning an Orange Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and a Rose Bowl, and three Big 12 championships along the way.

Stoops’ home record of 78-4 at Owen Field is astonishing, but look a bit closer and that big game success is starting to erode after surprising slip-ups seem to pockmark the Sooners’ prolonged success. While Oklahoma is 10-point favorites against Notre Dame, this wouldn’t be the first game the Sooners have lost being decided favorites.

The Sooners were two-touchdown favorites when Bill Snyder and Kansas State ambushed them. Last year, the No. 3 Sooners were shocked in Norman by Tommy Tuberville’s Texas Tech team, a 28-point underdog pulling off a huge upset. In 2010, the same thing went down, with No. 1 Oklahoma being shocked by No. 11 Missouri, again, with Stoops’ squad a favorite in the polls and in Vegas. And who can forget 2009, when BYU knocked out Sam Bradford and shocked the No. 3 Sooners, a 22-point opening day favorite.

No coach was capable of keeping pace with the torrid start of Stoops’ career, but the Sooners have lost nine conference games since October of 2009, a number that raises a few eyebrows when you consider the rarefied air in which Stoops is still held (not to mention paid).

Notre Dame’s big-game cred certainly isn’t anywhere near what it once was, likely playing into Irish’s underdog role. But that skepticism might need to extend to both sidelines on Saturday.

***

The Irish will need an ordinary game plan and an extraordinary Everett Golson to walk out of Norman winners.

Make no mistake, this game will be decided by the play of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson. For Notre Dame to win, the Irish need Golson to play the best game of his young career, and do it in the most hostile environment and on the biggest stage he’s experienced. If that’s too much pressure to heap on the shoulders of the Irish’s inexperienced signal-caller, well… tough. This is the kind of football game a quarterback goes to Notre Dame to play in. And this is the type of game the Irish need Golson to break through in if they’re going to exit the weekend 8-0.

“I really liked the way he practiced. Confident, moving, running around, throwing the ball with authority,” Kelly said. “Again, we’re probably all at that stage of, ‘Okay, when’s it going to happen? When’s it all going to come together?’ I think we’re all waiting and it’s going to.

“It hasn’t yet, but he’s starting to put together multiple practices in a row where I leave practice and go, ‘When this thing comes together, it’s going to be pretty exciting.’”

Feeling no ill-effects from the concussion that kept him from playing against BYU, Golson should feel more confident in his job than ever, after watching Tommy Rees falter when taken out of a supporting role and tested as a leading man. And after nursing a variety of maladies to start the season, Kelly believes the week off will be an added blessing for his quarterback.

“As I look back on it, it was the right thing to do,” Kelly said of sitting Golson out. “To really give him that week to kind of give over the hump.”

It may be a bit premature to announce that Golson is indeed over that hump, with the Sooners’ defense likely playing into that evaluation. But with some time to step back and catch his breath, Golson will be armed with a conservative game plan that this staff will ask him to execute efficiently, and if his natural talents help make some big plays, so be it.

After struggling in his first appearance under the Notre Dame microscope, Golson gets a rare mulligan Saturday night. For the Irish to win, he’ll need to take advantage of it.

  1. bernhtp - Oct 26, 2012 at 9:02 PM

    http://www.lostlettermen.com/oklahoma-notre-dame-play-like-a-champion-sign/

    A bit off topic: I get amused by the institutional insecurity. Nobody cares who used the sign/slogan first because it took Notre Dame to make it an icon. Similarly, billions of people said “just do it,” but it took Nike to make it famous.

  2. tony34343434 - Oct 26, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    i think Stoops and OU are not only looking to beat the Irish but they want to bury us and make a statement. Like Apollo Creed in Rocky II. This could be an advantage, if we can run the ball and keep it close going into the 4h quarter, all the pressure will be on them. Golson needs a huge game running the ball, control the clock, Lets go Irish, wake up the echoes!!!!

  3. glowplugv - Oct 26, 2012 at 10:04 PM

    Some thoughts….

    I was just curious about the strength of schedule between OU and ND. If I did my research right and math, OU’s opponents are 27-23, dominated by the 7-0 KSU which also beat OU. Included in OU’s opponents are three with losing records including Kansas at 1-6. However, four of their opponents are ranked in the BSC. ND’s opponents are 29-27 and except for Purdue at 3-4, all are either .500 or above. Only one ND opponent is currently ranked in BCS (Stanford).

    You might want to listen to Solid Verbal’s video. Carson York (the OU offensive lineman) must of have stated 3 or 4 times that ND’s line “just plays hard,” meaning that they block until the whistle blows. Got the strong impression that he felt ND could run on OU. He really thought the front 7 defense was great and Manti was just awesome; “no off switch,” and he stated that OU will “probably not like what they will see in middle.”

    My take is that ND has played some bruising, tight games and prevailed. They have done this with no major injuries to the starters. As Coach Holtz said in his week 9 prediction, he believes ND will win because they believe they can. Feels like ’57 again. I think ND can beat OU, if they exert their will on both lines. I just don’t think that OU has played a team as rugged and determined as ND. I hope that OU is believing all the hype, and counting on the wild fans because this should look like Rocky beating Apollo Creed when it is all over.

    Go Irish!

  4. irishdodger - Oct 26, 2012 at 10:55 PM

    GAIII will reportedly miss the game w/ the flu.

  5. ndfaithful - Oct 26, 2012 at 11:17 PM

    Have a great game everyone. I’ve been keeping this in my pocket for the underdog week. Once we beat OU, they’ll favor us at USC. I better use it today.

  6. bigboi30 - Oct 26, 2012 at 11:18 PM

    OU finally shuts up notre dame and expose them for the mediocre team they are. I don’t have a dog in this race could care less about OU. Just hope ND fans come back to the real world and realize what the whole world has told them, they are OVERRATED. lets look at reality, the ONLY reason they are talked about is because they played teams that the football world thought were good and beat them. Yawn. That’s watching the Irish play. I’m done, come at me with your blabbing blah blah blah

    • papadec - Oct 27, 2012 at 2:58 AM

      Look mommie – a new troll under the bridge.

      • sassysooner - Oct 27, 2012 at 1:58 PM

        Why are opposing opinion makers called “trolls?” Really? I am in Norman, today, and we are SO DAMN EXCITED to have ND in town. We respect the ND program and are pumped to play a great team. Do the Sooners think it’s gonna be a blowout? No. We expect a tough as nails game. We haven’t faced a defense like ND and ND hasn’t faced an offense like OU.

        Boomer Sooner, and back off all the “troll” b.s. We’re all commenting because we love the game.

      • papadec - Oct 27, 2012 at 2:37 PM

        to sassysooner – nobody here minds posts from fans of opposing teams – as long as they aren’t obnoxious. When they cross the line of civility, they become “Trolls”.

      • ndfaithful - Oct 27, 2012 at 3:15 PM

        Sassy – you’re classy. Come back any time!

  7. ndfan4ever - Oct 27, 2012 at 12:43 AM

    If ou watched the Miami film they will come out and throw deep 1st play out of the box. Defense hopefully keeps us close. ND wins if we have no turnovers and we return a kick off for a score. We need help on st or defense to score some points. Golson fumbles or throws a pick early we are in trouble. Here’s to Golson playing his best and is winning.

  8. c4evr - Oct 27, 2012 at 6:37 AM

    Win or lose, it’s nice to be back to back to caring this much about a game this late in the season.

  9. irishfan4ever - Oct 27, 2012 at 9:03 AM

    Could be trouble Atkinson is sick and may not play. That sucks.

  10. irishfan4ever - Oct 27, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    Correction he didn’t make the trip,that’s one weapon gone. So much for our three headed monster in the backfield.

  11. cpfirish - Oct 27, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    Well it GA3 is out then there go a chance of returning a kick off. Ouch that hurts.

    Go Irish.!!

  12. cvilleirish - Oct 27, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    Although I am disappointed to see any of our players go down to illness or injury, I am glad to have Cam McDaniel as a 3rd string running back. It could be MUCH worse.

  13. goirishgo - Oct 27, 2012 at 10:01 AM

    Game time temp in 30s. Advantage Irish.

  14. mdirish - Oct 27, 2012 at 10:06 AM

    Been watching college game day this morning on the U and as you’d expect there is a lot of credit being given to the defense and a lot of concern with the offense. I’m reading all of these comments about Golson and how’s he the key to the game. I record all of the games and watch them 2 or 3 times and it’s crystal clear to me that when he’s gets some protection he plays very well. To me this game comes down to the O Line. If they play well so will EG. If they play well we’ll be able to run the ball. If they play well we’ll win 21-20. If they don’t we’ll lose 27-17.

    GO IRISH!

  15. mmcss690 - Oct 27, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    Let’s see if Cam can put on a show like he did earlier this year during mop up! Kid runs hard! No one man tackles on him!

    • nudeman - Oct 27, 2012 at 11:20 AM

      Most likely will get zero carries
      So probably won’t put on much of a show

    • ndfaithful - Oct 27, 2012 at 3:55 PM

      I hope Cam puts on a show too! That would be awesome!
      Mostly, because I don’t think he’ll get a carry until we’re up by four touchdowns.

  16. sinister23 - Oct 27, 2012 at 11:20 AM

    LOL… I just seen a funny sign on tv… NOTRE LAME… It’s clever

  17. mdirish - Oct 27, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    If he’s getting the ball today either something really bad or really good is happening.

  18. irishfan4ever - Oct 27, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    I believe tonight’s game is gonna come down to who can control the line of scrimmage . All of ND’s games have come down to that. ND has been able to force everyone they have played to play ugly. This is gonna be a fist fight that will be won up front. The odds are against the Irish tonight but I think they can and will win. If our O line and D line can win their match ups things will fall into place for a win. ND-20 OU-17

    • mdirish - Oct 27, 2012 at 11:55 AM

      You’re spot on with the O line and D line analysis

  19. seamus0317 - Oct 28, 2012 at 12:25 AM

    OK Oklahoma…Knute just called and he wants the copyright back to “Play Like a Champion Today” !!!!!!!!!! The Irish are relevant again mark may and kirk herbstreit!!!!!!!!!!!

    • papadec - Oct 28, 2012 at 3:49 AM

      seamus – did we take the wagon this time?

  20. sassysooner - Oct 28, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    Ok, Irish! Now that you beat us in our own house, go win the National Championship please! No shame in losing to an amazing, highly ranked team. Congrats on the win…we lost to a great team!

    Boomer Sooner anyways! ;)

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