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Five things we learned: Oklahoma 35, Notre Dame 21

Sep 28, 2013, 9:21 PM EDT

Notre Dame’s first four plays could’ve served as the CliffsNotes for their 35-21 loss to Oklahoma. On third and long from the Irish 28, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker came unblocked off the backside, hitting Tommy Rees just as he was trying to throw. The ball ended up in linebacker Corey Nelson’s arms, and just 49 seconds into the game, the Sooners were up a touchdown.

Notre Dame’s next play from scrimmage was no better. Looking for TJ Jones on a slant route, Rees missed Jones but hit Sooner cornerback Aaron Colvin, who batted the ball into the air, where it was snatched up by linebacker Frank Shannon. Shannon scampered down the field, giving the Sooners the ball inside Notre Dame’s 35-yard line. Four plays later, Oklahoma was up 14 points

“If you’re going to turn the football over and give Oklahoma a 14 point lead, you’re in trouble,” Brian Kelly said after the game.

Even as the Irish tried their best to dig out of it, Bob Stoops’ Sooners seemed to have an answer for every counter the Irish seemed to mount. Riding an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers — all of which were turned into touchdowns — and a mistake-free performance by Blake Bell, Oklahoma earned a big non-conference victory to close out September.

Let’s find out what else we learned in Oklahoma’s 35-21 victory over Notre Dame.

***

Notre Dame’s slow start practically doomed them from the beginning.

After a clockwork opening quarter against Temple, the first quarter has been a disaster for Notre Dame. We’ve talked about it before, but after three-and-outs against Michigan, and even uglier starts against Purdue and Michigan State, the Irish found the only way to one-up that futility with two interceptions in their first four offensive plays.

When asked about the slow starts, Kelly was candid about his frustrations.

“If I knew what that was, I would not be standing here right now. I’d be doing something else,” Kelly said. “This is my 23rd year as a head coach. You never expect to not pick up the simplest of stunts. You never expect not to run the right route when you’re supposed to. But they happen.

“That’s why we have ulcers in this business. So you go back and you’ve got to coach. You’ve got to do a better job communicating. Ultimately it falls on me. We lost today.”

Credit should go to the Irish for fighting back, making a game of it and pulling within a touchdown both late in the second quarter and again in the second half. But Kelly’s prediction that Notre Dame needed to play their best game to win proved true, and now it’s up to this staff to find some answers for the early woes.

***

***

Just as he was starting to look like the odd man out, George Atkinson took back the No. 1 running back job. 

Late in the first quarter, freshman Tarean Folston burst around the left side of the offensive line, sprinting for a 36-yard gain before being tackled inside the Oklahoma five-yard line. The freshman looked like he was racing to the top of a jumbled depth chart, with five backs all jockeying for position behind him.

And then George Atkinson reminded everybody why Kelly and the coaching staff can’t give up on him. Atkinson played his finest game in an Irish uniform, gaining 148 yards on just 14 carries, with his 80-yard touchdown run a reminder that the Irish have one of college football’s most explosive players in their backfield.

All of that doesn’t matter if Atkinson doesn’t run like it. And after four games, the 220-pound back was given a stark appraisal of his work by Kelly this week.

“We didn’t think George ran physical enough. We told him that,” Kelly said. “We told him if he wanted to be the starter, he can’t get tackled by his ankles. He’s 220 pounds and I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball. He’s got to do that every week.”

Entering the game ranked 100th in rushing, the Irish did their job running the football. The Irish gained 220 yards on the ground, netting a hearty 7.6 yards per carry with Folston also looking very good on his two touches.

With it painfully obvious that the Irish are simply unable to beat a quality opponent if they’re forced to be a one-dimensional passing team, the ground game’s revival might be the one positive that the Irish can take out of Saturday’s lost offensively.

***

This offense can’t succeed if it’s hoisted solely on the shoulders of Tommy Rees. 

It was an ugly step backwards for Tommy Rees, who finished the day 9 of 24 for just 104 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Dissecting the turnovers will help shine a kinder light on Rees — the backside blitz snafu wasn’t his fault, nor was an incorrect pattern by DaVaris Daniels on his third — but a combined 39 percent passing over the last two Saturdays is a pretty glaring datapoint that Rees can’t be the man that serves as the engine of the Irish offense.

“We don’t want to put Tommy in a position where he’s got to carry the whole load,” Kelly said after the game. “We thought in the second half we were able to get into a position where we ran the football, play action pass, some quick throws. That’s how we want to play.”

That was evident in the game plan, which used two tight end formations and Andrew Hendrix in short yardage and zone read looks, his first playing time of any importance since the Champs Sports Bowl at the end of the ’11 season. Hendrix didn’t necessarily look comfortable out there, but he did add another wrinkle to the Irish offense, especially in short yardage situations.

After being questioned about his offense’s predictability, Kelly’s curveball at quarterback could be a sign of things to come.

“We’re just trying to diversify the offense a little bit, trying to add some more looks,” Kelly said on Hendrix’s inclusion in the game plan.  “He’s got some work to do.  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.”

Rees’s performance awoke a mob of critics that hardly ever go far from the scene. But with Notre Dame’s starting quarterback sitting in San Diego because of an academic impropriety, the vitriol for a senior leader that’s done nothing but his best for the Irish football program these past four seasons is one of the ugliest parts of Notre Dame Nation.

“We don’t want to put this whole thing on Tommy,” Kelly said. “It’s everybody. We always go back to the quarterback around here.  But this is about eleven players.”

***

Even a great defensive effort can be undone quickly by inconsistency. 

There was plenty of good mixed in by Bob Diaco’s defense, who did a nice job containing the Sooners’ passing game for most of the afternoon. But on a critical third down and short when the Irish needed a stop, Blake Bell hit an easy slant route to Sterling Shepard that all but sealed the football game for Oklahoma.

“I thought we gave up one play that we’d love to have back,” Kelly said after the game. “You know, the quick slant where we let Shepard inside. Just something that shouldn’t happen. Other than that, we were doing a really good job defensively against a very good offense.”

Oklahoma’s offense was able to run the football against the Irish, running for 212 yards and five yards a carry after being held to less than a yard a carry last season. And after establishing the ground game with the Sooners’ stable of backs and both Bell and backup quarterback Trevor Knight, that success opened up a back-breaking pass play that came out of a short-yardage running formation.

“When you can run the football in those sets, people have to start trickling down from the secondary to stop the run,” Stoops explained. “Generally, you can find some space to make big plays.  Fortunately, we caught one.”

With Sheldon Day still hampered by an ankle injury, the Irish got a nice effort by Kona Schwenke. Carlo Calabrese led the Irish with ten tackles. Freshman Jaylon Smith made seven stops and both Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt were active as well.

But with the chips in the middle and the defense needing a critical stop after clawing back to within a touchdown, they couldn’t deliver. In a scene too reminiscent of the fourth quarter in Ann Arbor, when it was time for one team to make a play, the opponent made it.

***

Fans and media members can focus on the implications of the loss. Brian Kelly and the Irish are going to get back to work. 

You can understand if Brian Kelly wasn’t too interested in discussing the Irish’s BCS hopes with the calendar still in September. That’s the type of big picture thinking that’s so destructive to a team that’s already dropped two games.

“I don’t really care about that stuff,” Kelly said after the game. “That’s for you guys to talk about.  I’ve got a football team here we’re trying to develop and work with.”

After five games, it’s easy to look at the remaining schedule and wonder what could be in store for an Irish team that is in the middle of its toughest stretch and still needs to play four games that look very losable on paper. But that’s not how this program operates.

“This is a group that each one of them knows why we lost the game,” Kelly said. “Each coach, each player in that locker room. This is a transparent group. There is nobody in there that is pointing a finger.  There are only thumb pointers in there.”

On Saturday, turnovers told the story, stacking the deck against a team that fought its hardest to get back into the game after spotting a talented opponent 14 points. While the Irish stayed with their game plan throughout most of the first half, the mistakes proved too costly as the Irish tried to play catch-up in the second half.

“I wanted to be in two tight ends and I wanted to run the football, and I wanted to run play action and I wanted to be able to control the game that way,” Kelly said of his original game plan.

“You just can’t turn the football the way we did. If we take care of the football, we might be in overtime right now. Who knows? But the bottom line from this offense is take care of the football. Play good defense. And these kids will battle their butts off and find a way to win.”

It wasn’t all negative on Saturday afternoon, though the Irish loss will likely knock Notre Dame out of the Top 25 for the first time since the second week of the ’12 season. The running game looks to have found its identity. The defense continues to make progress. And while it’s easy to think about what could’ve been had the Irish not started out so terribly, it’s back to the grind for the Irish, who next take on Arizona State, one of the most explosive passing teams in the country next Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium.

“We’re four years into our program. We know clearly what needs to be done,” Kelly said. “We’ll get back to work on Tuesday and work to get better.”

172 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. mediocrebob - Sep 29, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    Mathias Farley hasn’t taken a step back from last year. He’s taken 5 steps back. I say throw Redfield in. Farley is exposed every week.

  2. mediocrebob - Sep 29, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    Kelly is in hot water? GTFO you losers. If you really think that I understand that you don’t understand the game or how this works. I just wish you’d stay off of here. Your comments make us all dumber just reading them.

    Kelly isn’t in ANY hot water except maybe with you people that don’t get it. And I don’t think anyone cares if he’s in hot water with you.

    KCCO.
    Go Irish.

    • c4evr - Sep 29, 2013 at 4:28 PM

      It’s at least piss warm water after the egg laid so far. And, judging by your post, I don’t really it’s possible to make you any dumber.

  3. jerseyirish10 - Sep 29, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    Saw last night on ESPN, the QBR for the day. Bell had a 79 and change….Tommy’s….10.3. He is a good QB for the Temples, Purdues, etc. can do just enough to win. Against the better teams, just doesn’t have to tools. He is what he is. I’m starting to agree with Nude on BK being a good game day or in game coach. Those Hendrix plays, after finally moving the ball, just screamed of desperation. Just really a silly time to call on him. If we are beating some team by 4 TDs, bring him in all you want…not down 14 pts after 17 seconds of the game.

  4. danirish - Sep 29, 2013 at 11:49 AM

    Let the countdown begin:

    7 games until Rees graduates (8 if we get a bowl)

  5. danirish - Sep 29, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    Here’s another thing wew learned:

    Near the end of the game, the Irish have a chance and whether it is Rees or play calling or what – THREE incompletions – THREE.

    Bring in the punt team – so to follow the THREE limp pass attempts, good ole Kyle comes in and blasts, no what, shucks a 36 yard punt. OU ball at the 50.

    Last week, Kyle blasts two 50+ to get us out of a hole.

    How about some consistency

  6. mediocrebob - Sep 29, 2013 at 12:32 PM

    Could ever? Oklahoma last year? If Irish have Golson, this offense/team is completely different. But we don’t so this year is what it is. If they get to 9 wins…success. And goodbye TR. thanks for what you’ve done. But I think everyone is ready to move on. And after this year there will be some sort of depth at QB

    • c4evr - Sep 29, 2013 at 4:30 PM

      And exactly how will there be more depth at QB next year when Zaire is the only lock at this point?

  7. mediocrebob - Sep 29, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    @2late-

    You act like the Irish didn’t compete. They handed OK the ball 3 times and spotted them 14 and had it within 6 in the 4th quarter.

    Guess haters gon hate.

    • runners00 - Sep 29, 2013 at 1:08 PM

      Haters gonna hate.

      But for the 3 turnovers, the Irish win the game. Now, that is a lot to ask to take back. The reasons for the turnovers were fairly simple. We didn’t block or we didn’t call the right pass protection or whatever. We didn’t get it done.

      But if we play good football and we hold onto it and we protect it, we’re in great shape. Right now, it looks like OU buried us (and by the way: how did we not pick up the OU defender on our first play from scrimmage? That was unreal. I don’t know if that’s Kelly, Rees or someone else but that is a horrific mistake.

  8. pdmjr - Sep 29, 2013 at 12:55 PM

    They need a quality QB for next season anyone on radar like a 5 year player from another program. Clearly Kelly has no expertise in choosing QBs, they either transfer fail or flunk out

  9. irishaggie - Sep 29, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    I know this sucks guys but lets have some perspective. Look at the other National Title contenders. How many of those could lose their starting QB and still be championship level?

    1. Alabama – Nope
    2. Oregon – Maybe
    3. Clemson – Nope
    4. OSU – Yes (really easy schedule)
    5. LSU -Nope
    6. Georgia – Nope
    7. Stanford – Nope
    8. FSU – Nope
    9. A&M – Nope
    10. Louisville -Nope

    I know this is a wasted season and it feels awful but we have to live with the fact that we are playing with a 2nd string and need to retain our 5 stars at all cost.

  10. cpfirish - Sep 29, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Haha… Brian Kelly comes and says tommy is our starter despite the 3 int’s. Haha. That’s funny shit. I guess Brian Kelly loves being mediocre!! Jesus what a joke!! Hey Brian get off his nuts already!!

  11. wrlc2013 - Sep 29, 2013 at 2:25 PM

    We frequently hear that the ND team is still trying to find out w ho they are. Well, how can the offence find out who they are when the running backs are being switched after almost every play? The running backs never get a chance to really get into the game, develop a rhythm. Folstons 2 runs yesterday demonstrated that he can be a real load, he ran hard and showed good speed and ability to run through tackles. When BK wanted to run, I think he should have just stuck with Atkinson ( who at last was running hard) and Folston. In a game, a back gets better the more carries he gets. Just choose 2 backs and stick with them for the game.

    The defence really seems to have problems on the perimeter. They were much better in that regard when they were defending in the red zone, shedding blockers and making tackles for losses on wide plays. I guess because the LBs and DBs were up closer to the line of scrimmage. But, in the middle of the field, they can’t seem to maintain contain and the pursuit from the inside is almost always too little, too late.

    • nudeman - Sep 29, 2013 at 3:13 PM

      “offence”? “defence”?

      You checking in from Quebec? Maybe Normandy?

      Jesus …

      • wrlc2013 - Sep 29, 2013 at 5:18 PM

        It’s the damn auto-correct on my iPad. However, spelling is not the issue here, I am amazed that you choose to make a big deal of something like that. What an idiot! As you would say, Jesus!

      • ihatemistate - Sep 29, 2013 at 6:36 PM

        Knock it off Nude, no need for the attitude. That’s precisely why people hate ND.

  12. wisner74 - Sep 29, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    Probably Toronto, Nude. He does speak English.

  13. wisner74 - Sep 29, 2013 at 3:50 PM

    I haven’t read all of the comments yet — too busy right now watching Jay Cutler play worse than Tommy Rees — so maybe this has already been pointed out. Yesterday’s game reminded me a lot of USC two years ago. We played very poorly in the first quarter and got down by 14. But the Irish started to crawl back into it. Just before half Irish were down only 14-7 (I think) and had the ball on the USC two-yard line. A blown exchange between Cave and Crist (I think) resulted in a 98-yard TD return for a USC TD. Instead of 14-14, or 14-10 at worse, at halftime, it’s 21-7. Just like yesterday, we played them even in the second half, which of course is small comfort. Rees’s third INT was an absolute killer. Wasn’t returned 98 yards, but OU did score it’s third TD off of it. An enormous turn-around.

    • nudeman - Sep 29, 2013 at 4:18 PM

      Hey, remind me, who started that game at QB for ND and took 95% of the snaps?
      Here’s a hint: USC was a decent team that year and ND lost.
      That’s really all you need to know.

      • wisner74 - Sep 29, 2013 at 5:23 PM

        Gotta go out and do my weekly weight-lifting for my knee right now before the Y closes, Nude, but when I get back, I’ll explain in detail why yet again you’re wrong on this point.

      • viktory2013 - Sep 29, 2013 at 5:56 PM

        I have thought and spoken well of Kelly previously, based on his accomplishments last season and at Cincinnati, but if he sticks with Rees and refuses to play Zaire and Bryant over some personal animosity, then he’d a stubborn fool and deserves the impending 7-5. Whatever weird loyalty or affection he has for that loser is dragging the team into oblivion. How much worse could Zaire be???? I don’t know any major team that wouldn’t have benched him after these last two games. He’s a senior, for chrissakes, he’s not going to get better. Weed out all that dead weight like Calabrese, Fox, Jackson and Farley! Dan Devine had that same idiotic beef with Montana and suffered through game after game with fat and talentless Rick Slager. What is it with these guys??? Saban and Meyer don’t care if they’re green with pink polka dots as long they perform. RKG my ass! Rees is not a “great kid” as he pretends. He’s a slick little dude that’s eating up his numbered days as an ND qb; his run in with the cops showed his true personna. His bs audibles are just another attention grab to have announcers talking about him. Little shit couldn’t care less about the results as long as he’s in the spotlight. Kelly needs a wakeup call.

      • danirish - Sep 29, 2013 at 6:53 PM

        @victory2013 & nude. Maybe we don’t know everything? Perhaps Bryant is struggling with grades or sucks at practice but Kelley can’t come out and say that.

        Perhaps Zaire is not ready or, like Bryant, has some non-football related issues.

        Fact: We went from fortune to famine in the qb department. If Golsen didn’t make a very bad decision we could be undefeated or winless, but really – with Golsen this offense moves.

        Nudeman – you and I have both started the countdown til Rees leaves. 7 games right? Unless we somehow go to a bowl.

      • wrlc2013 - Sep 29, 2013 at 7:41 PM

        I would like to see Zaire too but it seems that BK wants to redshirt him. I can’t understand that desire, half the time if a player really develops into a good one, he leaves for the NFL draft after his 4th year or even sooner and thus is never around to take advantage of having been redshirted.

  14. mediocrebob - Sep 29, 2013 at 5:29 PM

    @2late-

    A) Notre Dame’s offense during the Weis era was not even close to big10 smash mouth football

    B) what would you call Nick Saban’s style? Pretty smash mouth. Like most of the SEC. Seems to be where the success is at soooo, you’re dumb.

  15. ihatemistate - Sep 29, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    5 Things I learned-(or relearned)
    1. We MUST have a QB that will run with the ball. Every team that beats us has one. Even the weaker teams have one.
    2. The defense is getting better and I think will come to be very good next year.
    3. Kelly’s play calling didn’t help (calling a pass play on our own 20 right off the bat) even Weis wouldn’t have done that. (and the reporters need to tell Kelly to stick it with his cockiness).
    4. The defensive receivers need to be head cracked every time they fail to turn and look for the ball.
    5. They need to go to Niklas ALOT, and why they don’t is another coaching weakness.

    • nudeman - Sep 29, 2013 at 8:47 PM

      1. Agree.
      2. Loudly disagree. Defense is awful. And how does it get better next year with their – alleged – 2 best DLs gone?
      3. Agree, emphatically
      4. Disagree. Turning and looking for the ball costs you a step. Bennett Jackson turned and looked at the ball, lost his man, then ran circles in the end zone trying to catch up. On the other hand, if you’re a DB who isn’t always a step and a half behind you don’t have to worry about this.
      5. Agree, emphatically.

      • pigfanincolorado - Sep 29, 2013 at 10:06 PM

        1. We must have a QB who can get a better control of the game situation and run more than two plays per minute when ND is down and trying to come back. It’s fine when you’re up or close, but not down. The play between the last few minutes of the third quarter and the first five minutes of the fourth quarter said it all.
        2. The defense has many limitations. The loss of KLM and Manti appears to be more of a problem than initially expected. Tuitt is not hitting a gear and the coverage of the LBs in space or right in their grills is frighteningly bad. I won’t even get into the piss poor coverage of Jackson (What in the hell happened to him?), Collinsworth, and Russell.
        3. Play calling is questionable, but when you look at your issues at QB, you have to wonder how much that impacts decisions.
        4. At some point in the coverage, you have to either be one hell of a player in anticipating the arrival of the ball, or you must find the ball – ND’s DBs can’t do either.
        5. I think it’s more accurate to say that they need to involve Niklas a lot more in the fundamental plays of the offense. He’s a true weapon, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s used.

  16. mediocrebob - Sep 29, 2013 at 9:34 PM

    Things I’ve learned from these stupid comments:

    1) people on here actually believe that they know what they’re talking about. They actually think they know more about this game than BK. and they actually act like they are at all of these practices and know what’s best for the team.

    2) a lot of people on here have no loyalty and are the biggest problem with this football program. Get over yourself. Irish wouldn’t have been in the NCG without BK. in fact, both of the losses and 2 of the wins would’ve been losses before BK came to ND.

    This is pretty cut and dry. If the Irish have Golson, they’re most likely undefeated. Haters can say what they want but they only watch the highlights to see the final score and then start pointing fingers and laughing. Let them hate. For those of you bitching, find a new team. Or better yet , start your own team and take on BK and teach him a thing or two. I’ll buy a ticket for that match up.

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