Oklahoma heads to South Bend for the first time since Bob Stoops’ debut season in Norman this weekend. A year after losing to Notre Dame in the comfy confines of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, the Sooners head to South Bend hoping to return the favor, with a prestige non-conference victory likely bringing some luster back to a program that’s won a lot of football games, but been outside the BCS for the past three years.
With a talented roster that’s yet to leave home or play a team with a winning record, this is the first big test for Stoops’ Sooners. And to get us prepared for the match-up, Oklahoman beat writer Jason Kersey took some time to answer a few questions.
1) Walk us through what is going on at quarterback. From the outside, it seemed like a shocking decision to name Trevor Knight the starting quarterback out of camp, with Blake Bell all but assumed to be the heir apparent to Landry Jones.
After some uneven appearances by Knight, the job looks to be Bell’s now, especially after passing for 400+ against Tulsa . Is it? After only knowing about the Belldozer, what’s in store for the Irish defense this weekend?
It’s safe to say that Trevor Knight’s rise in the quarterback derby was a pretty big surprise to everyone. Knight earned the job by displaying impressive flashes of athleticism throughout fall camp and the scrimmages, but when it came to game time, it was often apparent that he might not have been quite ready for this stage. He struggled mightily in the passing game, which is obviously really important in Oklahoma ’s offense.
Knight’s knee was injured late in the first half of the Sooners’ second game against West Virginia, but he still played the third quarter and threw two interceptions. So at the beginning of the fourth, they made the switch to Bell .
To answer your question, yes, the job is Bell’s, and unless he plays really, really bad against Notre Dame or gets hurt, there’s no reason to believe it won’t stay Bell’s for the foreseeable future.
I think there’s probably still a place for the Belldozer package in OU’s offense, but I would be shocked if it’s used much. Now that he’s the guy, they don’t want him taking those big hits.
2) The Notre Dame defense has been a different unit than the group that powered the Irish to the BCS National Championship game. Particularly, the secondary has struggled early this season. Is this an area the Sooners can exploit? On paper, this group looks really deep. Jalen Saunders is back after a big game against the Irish last season. Who are the dangerous skill players that the Irish will have to account for?
Judging from the Sooners’ most recent game, I would expect they’ll try to take advantage of a relatively weak Notre Dame secondary with the passing game. But I really expect them to work hard at establishing the run. OU has really been “persistent” — as Bob Stoops said Monday — in the run game, and it’s worked pretty well so far.
The Sooners rushed for 300 yards in their first two games, and they’ve got a strong group of backs that are capable of carrying the load, and the offensive line has beefed up and is playing much more physical than it did a year ago, when Notre Dame held OU to 15 rushing yards.
The skill guys Notre Dame will need to account for are Jalen Saunders, Sterling Shepard, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch.
3) Mike Stoops has installed a 3-3-5 defense. You wrote earlier this week about a leadership void last season. There were worries about the defensive front. What do we know about this group through three games?
The defensive line was a major area of concern entering the season, but that unit has really played well through three games. But OU obviously hasn’t faced a team like Notre Dame yet, so this will be a tremendous challenge for the defensive line.
The linebackers were an area of concern this year because of how badly they were used a year ago. Late in the season against high-powered spread attacks of Baylor, West Virginia , Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, Mike Stoops experimented with linebacker-less schemes to disastrous results.
But this year, the linebackers are a major part of the defense. Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon are among the defense’s best playmakers, which really is striking considering how they were used in 2012.
Nelson talked about a lack of leadership on defense last year, which I thought was a pretty interesting — and somewhat startling — confession. That doesn’t seem to be a problem so far in 2013.
4) Bob Stoops just got a new two-year extension, paying him a tremendous sum of money. After a dominant start in Norman, it’s been three years since the Sooners last BCS appearance. Stoops’ reputation seems to have taken a bit of a hit these past few years, especially since he started losing some of the big games he built his reputation on winning. Is he a victim of his own success? How do Sooner fans feel about their head coach, who will likely become the program’s all-time winningest coach this season?
I’d say Oklahoma fans, on the whole, are still appreciative of the job Bob Stoops has done with the Sooners. Those who aren’t probably need a reminder of the shape OU was in when Stoops arrived.
But it’s also fair to say that many fans are frustrated by some of the big-game struggles of the past few seasons. I think Bob, though, is also pretty frustrated by it, which is why he’s fired four assistant coaches in the past two seasons.
5) Last year, most were shocked when Notre Dame came into Norman and pulled away for a convincing win. Is this a weekend that’s been circled on the calendars for quite some time? Last weekend, we heard from Mark Dantonio how the game was important, but it was a non-conference game. How are the Sooners treating this Saturday?
Among fans and maybe some players, yes, I think the game has probably been circled for a while. Bob Stoops gave a similar answer when asked about the game’s importance, saying that it’s not a conference game and the season won’t be made or broken by Saturday’s result. I don’t necessarily buy that, though. I think this game is critical for a program that many have started to label as overrated. Oklahoma needs this win badly to boost its national reputation.
To read more from Jason, check out his work at The Oklahoman and follow him on Twitter @JasonKersey.