Usually losing for the second time in the season’s opening month calls for greater introspection. But upon the second viewing of Notre Dame’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, the results were quite clear: Early turnovers sunk the Irish on Saturday.
Those turnovers ultimately fall on quarterback Tommy Rees. The senior leader of the Irish offense once again played a subpar football game, completing just nine of 24 throws for 104 yards, passing for two touchdowns but throwing three first half interceptions.
Brian Kelly talked Sunday about the options at quarterback, and for those asking for a change, they’ll be disappointed. Kelly publicly supported Rees as the Irish’s No. 1 quarterback, with Andrew Hendrix supplementing him.
“He certainly is,” Kelly said of Rees as the team’s QB1 moving forward. “With the recognition that Andrew is going to be able to help us out as well. But there’s no question that the quarterback that’s going to start for us is Tommy Rees.”
With the inmates restless and the Irish needing to move on quickly and prepare for Arizona State, let’s clean out the notebook and take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to Oklahoma.
George Atkinson. It was a great day at the office for Atkinson, who ran for a career-best 148 rushing yards against Oklahoma. Given a chance to establish some rhythm, Atkinson rewarded the staff with his best effort.
As the Irish prepare to play an Arizona State team that looks a lot more beatable when its offense is on the sideline, they’re going to need that commitment from the ground game, and Atkinson also gives them a threat to take it the distance as well.
Carlo Calabrese. We don’t usually see a Notre Dame linebacker making double-digit tackles not named Te’o. The fifth-year linebacker was stout on defense, filling the stat sheet with ten tackles.
Jaylon Smith & Elijah Shumate: The youngsters on defense both contributed seven tackles against the Sooners, a dynamic opponent that challenges you in a variety of ways.
Tarean Folston. A very impressive run by Folston around the left side of the offensive line set up an early Notre Dame touchdown. He didn’t get many more opportunities after Atkinson started to pick up steam, but Folston showed himself to be an explosive option.
Speaking of freshman running backs, more rumors have spread across the internet about Greg Bryant. Palm Beach Post reporter Jeff Greer said that Bryant’s father mentioned the plan to redshirt Bryant.
On Sunday, Kelly wasn’t willing to go that far, but acknowledged that Bryant wasn’t available because of a knee injury.
“He didn’t play this week because of a knee injury,” Kelly said. “But you know, when you start talking about medical redshirts and you talk about redshirts here at Notre Dame, we are way down that line. We have got to slow down a little bit here.”
Saving a year of eligibility would be a nice perk for Bryant, and a nice bit of roster management for the Irish, especially with Elijah Hood decommitting from the recruiting class.
An offensive identity forming. It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame isn’t going to run the table by spreading an offense out and beating them with one-on-one passing match-ups. That type of game plan seems to work if your quarterback’s playing on Sunday, and mostly if their last names are Manning (only Peyton) or Brady.
Kelly talked about getting back to the basics, and setting a goal of 200 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving.
“From an identity standpoint, we ran for 200 yards,” Kelly said. “We have to be able to run for 200 and throw for 200 and that’s the identity we want to have as an offense.”
Tommy Rees’s accuracy. Notre Dame can’t win completing less than 40% of their passes. And Rees just hasn’t been as accurate as the Irish need him to be the past few weeks.
“I’m disappointed with how I played individually,” Rees said after the game. “You’ve got to be better. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win games against good teams like Oklahoma.”
While Kelly did commit to playing more of Andrew Hendrix, he also revealed his season-long plan to keep a redshirt on Malik Zaire, something that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you start to think about the roster management needed after losing Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel unexpectedly.
“My guess is right now, unless we have an injury, you’re not going to see Malik, unless we get into an injury situation,” Kelly said. “We only have the three quarterbacks, so we have to keep him ready to go. But I’d prefer not to play him unless we have a medical situation.”
Rushing Defense. After a really stingy performance two seasons ago, the Irish just gave up too much on the ground against Oklahoma. The Sooners ran for five yards a carry, allowing Oklahoma to control the ball for nearly 36 minutes.
A season after not giving up a gain of over seven yards on the ground, the Sooners had five people with carries of over seven yards, including four ball carriers that had runs of twelve yards or more.
Ben Councell’s ejection. Outside linebacker Ben Councell was ejected from the game after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay. The hit ended Councell’s afternoon early, and will likely cost him the first 30 minutes of the game against Arizona State, unless the Irish win their appeal.
“We don’t believe there was any intent there,” Kelly said. “There was no intent, he was trying to make a play on the ball. We’ll obviously discuss it with the commissioner of the ACC and we’ll make our case that in video as we’ve looked at it, we clearly don’t see any intent for him to lead and intentionally try to strike with his helmet.”
If Councell isn’t back, the Irish will be in a bit of a pinch from a personnel perspective. Romeo Okwara could slide over to the field-side, or the Irish could slide a safety down in the box, perhaps a bigger body like John Turner.
Back-breaking slant for a touchdown. With 12:35 on the clock and the Irish down six points, Notre Dame could’ve gotten off the field with a third down stop and taking the ball back. But the Sooners lined up in a tight bunch formation, with Notre Dame looking to be in man coverage.
The Irish sent Bennett Jackson and Dan Fox off the short-side in a blitz, while Ishaq Williams dropped back into coverage. Sterling Shepard got a free release at the line of scrimmage and rant a quick slant across the middle, beating Jarrett Grace underneath before outrunning Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth to the end zone.
The blitz didn’t get there against the quick throw and the Sooners essentially clinched the victory.
* Bennett Jackson filled the stat sheet as a tackler, making seven stops and two behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s got to do a better job in coverage. Much is expected from the guy wearing a C on his chest.
* Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to put the blown blitz pick-up on one guy. But between Tommy Rees, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, they’ve got to pick that one up.
* In a passing game that relies on precision, the young wide receiving corps isn’t necessarily doing their job. In the same breath that Kelly talked about Rees’s need to be more accurate against man coverage, he also talked about the receivers needing to do their job better as well.
“We have got some young receivers out there that are not precise quite frankly in their route running,” Kelly said.
A terrible start. You couldn’t script a worse beginning for Notre Dame. The perfect recipe to not just lose a football game, but to also take the crowd out of it.
Terrible turnovers. Notre Dame isn’t going to beat anyone with a -3 turnover differential. And they certainly aren’t going to do it against a good team like Oklahoma, who turned those three into 21 points. Let’s run through the three crucial mistakes, just for posterity’s sake.
* Turnover One: Interesting that Brian Kelly won’t call this an interception even though it’s in the books as a pick. Rees was hit as (or just before) he was hit, and it flies right into the linebacker’s arms. Pick Six to start the game.
* Turnover Two: This one is on Rees, who threw the slant early to a spot and missed. Cornerback Aaron Colvin batted the pass into the air, it was intercepted and a handful of plays later the Sooners were up 14-0.
* Turnover Three: Not a great design, especially when DaVaris Daniels ran an incorrect route. Still, the quarterback has to make a decision that’s better than that, and it was thrown either behind Daniels or into traffic if it was heading to Jones.
Terrible September. Irish fans might have forgotten that these are the perils of a Notre Dame schedule. While some teams start with a cream-puff non-conference slate, the Irish have battled one mediocre squad and then played three Big Ten teams and Oklahoma.
While any BCS National title dreams are gone, the Irish could still find a BCS bowl if they run the table or finish with three losses. But after watching Arizona State put the finishing touches on the Lane Kiffin era, the focus should only extend to the Sun Devils.