Irish face stiffest test thus far in Sooner skill players

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A coach’s weekly pressure conference is usually an exercise in platitudes. But as Brian Kelly took to the podium to discuss the Oklahoma Sooners, it wasn’t hard to hear the genuine respect in his voice, especially when talking about the offense Bob Stoops’ team brings to town.

“We’re going against an extremely skilled and talented football team,” Kelly said. “Their offensive depth at the skill position is as good as I’ve seen across the country.  Their wide receiving corps in particular, they can roll out as many as six to seven wide receivers… Depth at the running back, veteran offensive line, top two running backs returning.  I could probably go on and on.”

A year after allowing Landry Jones to throw for 356 yards, but still manage to hold the Sooners to just 13 points, Kelly’s Irish are facing an even steeper challenge for their defense, a group that showed signs of improvement last week against Michigan State. But there’s no mistaking the Sooners offense for that of the Spartans, a group that’s ranked 106th in the country. Oklahoma, after struggling against West Virginia and replacing redshirt freshman Trevor Knight at quarterback, exploded for 607 yards in Blake Bell’s first start, likely ending any quarterback controversy right before the Sooners’ bye week and first trip to South Bend since 1999.

Kelly talked about Bell’s success last week and what type of challenges a gigantic quarterback who can both run and throw presents to the Irish defense.

“He’s got a nice touch on the ball, a good presence about him,” Kelly said of Bell. “He looked like a thrower, not a runner.  I know he’s a big, physical strong kid, and I think he was used last year more in the goal line offense.

“He’s much more than a goal line offense quarterback. He’s a skilled passer of the football, and I think he maybe got a reputation that is not really fitting of who he is. I think he was a five‑star quarterback, and he can throw the football.”

The Irish defense will be facing a dual-threat quarterback for the fifth straight game they’ve played this season. With proper respect given to Temple’s Connor Reilly, Purdue’s Rob Henry, and Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Bell creates challenges that rival those of Devin Gardner, only a super-sized version at 6-6, 250-pounds.

“Somebody has got to have the quarterback within what you do defensively,” Kelly said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing.  And you certainly just have to make sure that you’re solid in your tackling. But the biggest challenge is him having runs and passes built into the same play. That’s where it really becomes a challenge, because the kid can throw the football.”

The Irish have tweaked their secondary in the past few weeks, giving opportunities to safety Elijah Shumate, who Kelly says has worked into a three-for-two rotation with Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley, as well as freshman Devin Butler, who played some in nickel coverage last week along with fellow freshman Cole Luke.

Of course a big element in coverage will also come from the front seven, with linebackers like Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace needing to do a better job in coverage, and a defensive line needing to get to Bell with as few blitzers as possible, to keep this dangerous Sooners offense contained.

That was a formula that worked magic last season, getting off the field on third down and turning the Sooners offense one-dimensional. To win on Saturday, they’ll need to be able to do the same thing, something that’s proven difficult in life after Te’o.

“I thought defensively our game plan was to keep the ball in front of us, minimize the big plays.  I think that’s going to have to be the case again,” Kelly said when asked about his defense’s effort last season. “I think you’re going to have to see a similar kind of effort.  It’s going to have to be our best game of the year in all phases, including special teams.”

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For more on Kelly’s press conference, read the transcript at IrishIllustrated.com:

Kelly Q&A: Sept. 24
Irish head coach Brian Kelly previewed Saturday's match-up against Oklahoma and the Sooners' dual-threat quarterback Blake Bell.