Can Irish force Sooners offense to be one-dimensional?

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Coming off a game where quarterback Blake Bell completed over 70 percent of his passes, threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns, it might feel counterintuitive to say that Notre Dame’s best chance to beat the Sooners will come from forcing Oklahoma to pass more. But after controlling the line of scrimmage last year with a dominant performance up front, the Irish would be wise to try and do the same thing a season later.

Trying and doing are two different things. Bob Stoops has recommitted to running the football and the early season returns are impressive. While Notre Dame enters Saturday with the 100th ranked rushing attack, the Sooners are running for a robust 270 yards per game, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Yet they understand that they’re in for a challenge far greater than what they’ve seen in their first three games.

“It’s no disrespect to anybody that we’ve played up to this point because they are good and you have to prepare every week … but this will be the best defensive line that we’ve faced by far and possibly the best we’ll see all year,” OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh told the Oklahoman. “You look at their defensive line across the board and there’s not a weak guy, and that doesn’t happen very often in college football.”

Part of Stoops offseason plans revolved around fixing the offensive line. Gone are Bruce Kittle and James Patton, the two coaches most responsible for the offensive line. Bedenbaugh was brought in from West Virginia to rebuild the Sooners front. He also had experience working with Mike Stoops at Arizona, where he served as co-offensive coordinator, offensive line coach and ground game coordinator during his time in Tuscon.

After not having a carry longer than seven yards last season against the Irish, the Sooners are hoping to take their big play run game with them to South Bend. As Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated pointed out today, “big chunk” runs (as Brian Kelly calls them) have been a specialty for Oklahoma’s talented backfield.

Although the sample size is small and against a struggling Louisiana-Monroe, a star-depleted West Virginia, and a taken-a-step-back Tulsa, Oklahoma is biting off huge chunks of real estate this season.

The Sooners have an incredible 27 runs of 10 yards or more through three games. Seven of those double-digit runs have been by freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who no longer is in the starting lineup. But there are plenty of others who can carry the load, including Bell with four of his own double-digit-yardage runs.

Brennan Clay, Damien Williams, Roy Finch and Keith Ford all have contributed to the explosive ground game that ranks 16th nationally (271.7 yards per game). Against West Virginia alone, Clay had runs of 33, 34, 26 and 32 yards. Finch had a 21-yarder against ULM and a 48-yarder against Tulsa. Williams, who missed the Tulsa game for disciplinary reasons, had four double-digit-yardage runs against West Virginia. Ford had a 23-yarder against Tulsa.

(An aside: It’s interesting that one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks of the past few years is now starting in Blake Bell, but Trevor Knight is the quarterback that’s had the most success on the ground.)

The Sooners know they’ve got their hands full up front, especially at the point of attack where Louis Nix will need to be active on Saturday. His match-up with Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard, a preseason All-American in his own right, should be one of the biggest X factors of the game.

“He’s the best in the country, especially at controlling the line of scrimmage, making plays and being active for his size,” Ikard told the Oklahoman, when talking about Notre Dame’s nose tackle. “I’m very excited to be able to play against someone like him.”

The battle won’t just be between those two, but a veteran offensive line taking on an Irish front that played better last weekend and expects Sheldon Day back on Saturday. If the Irish can control the line of scrimmage, then they’ll need to continue to tackle better in space, rallying to the football and preventing the Sooners’ personnel from getting loose in space.

“We have to minimize the big-chunk plays,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “That’s one of our goals each and every week, minimizing those big-chunk plays. We were able to do that last year. We’re going to do it this year if we want to win the football game.”

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