On a beautiful South Bend Saturday, it’ll be up to Notre Dame to play a near perfect game. An underdog at home to the visiting Sooners, the Irish will need to play their best game in all three phases to emerge victorious against the Sooners.
Let’s run through a few final keys before kickoff:
Tommy Rees. How much of the offensive burden will be hoisted onto his shoulders? Because right now, Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have asked the senior quarterback to do it all. With pass heavy game plans the past three games, Rees will need to be more accurate throwing the football down field than he was last week, when a heavy wind — and a really good Spartans secondary — played tricks on his deep ball accuracy.
Still, expect the staff to support him more with this game plan. Intermediate throws, crossing routes and slants would be a nice start. Maybe even a run game to try and challenge Mike Stoops’ 3-3-5 defense that has stood strong through three games.
For Notre Dame to win, Rees is going to have to play his best game of the season. But he’ll need his teammates to help carry the load as well.
Notre Dame’s offensive line. We’ve talked about how well they’ve done in pass protection. We’ve talked about not running into bad run looks or overloaded boxes. But this is a group that many expected to be the best offensive line since the Lou Holtz era. With two All-American caliber players anchoring the left side and big, strong, physical players across the board. It’s time to cut through the reasons and start dominating.
Harry Hiestand’s group is four games through the season. And they’ve yet to have a road-grading performance this year. Against a Sooner front seven that was much maligned heading into the season, can the Irish not just protect Tommy Rees but make this offense two-dimensional, providing a ground game to help dominate the clock and keep the ball out of the Sooners’ hands?
A key stat for this afternoon: Oklahoma’s front six weighs an average of 253 pounds. Notre Dame’s front six (including Troy Niklas), weighs an average of 304 pounds. That’s over 50-pounds a man. It’s an advantage the Irish need to capitalize on.
The Irish secondary. This has been a puzzling group that’s really struggled at the start of the season. But after two weeks of solid performances (against bottom of the barrel Big Ten quarterbacks), can this group play smart, fundamental football and make Blake Bell pay for his mistakes?
From a personnel perspective, this is the toughest test the Irish will face all year. The Sooners receiving corps is loaded, a likely sign that Bob Diaco will abandon some of the man-coverage looks he’s played to start this season and focus on the two-deep zone.
This group should be fine giving up five to avoid giving up fifty. But there’ll be some throws that Bell leaves out there this afternoon. And it’s up to guys like Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth to identify it and take the football away.
Notre Dame’s pass rush. If Notre Dame is going to win, they’re going to need to make things uncomfortable for Blake Bell. That means a heavy dose of guys like Prince Shembo, who has yet to get on track this season, and Stephon Tuitt, who notched his second sack of the year last week.
(After listening to Notre Dame fans the past month, you’d think Stephon Tuitt was closer to the bench than the NFL. But as October approaches, Tuitt and Jadeveon Clowney both have two sacks and ten total tackles.)
Sheldon Day is back in the lineup. Louis Nix will be matched up with Gabe Ikard. But whether the pressure is supplied by the front three, Shembo, or Ishaq Williams, the Irish need to get in the face of Bell early and often, doing it without having to sell the farm.
Stopping the run. Bob Stoops has made a commitment to running the football. With a veteran trio of seniors in Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, and a standout freshman Keith Ford, whose powerful style has reminded some of Adrian Peterson (blasphemy!), the Sooners are running for over 270 yards a game.
Nobody forgot how well the Irish did stopping Oklahoma’s running game last year. But holding this group below 100 yards could be the key to force the Sooners to throw the football more than they want.
Starting quick. Nothing is more important to the Irish than getting out of the gate quickly. Other than a great start against Temple, the Irish offense has been inept in the first quarter. Getting out to a quick start and getting points on the board early will be key.
Standout wide receivers. We’ve talked about how dangerous the Sooners receivers are, but Notre Dame isn’t trotting out slouches. But a week after DaVaris Daniels had some growing pains against an experienced set of Michigan State cornerbacks, the Irish need better individual performances by their pass catchers.
Big games should bring out big players, and this is a stage that should be set for TJ Jones and Daniels. Was last week a fluke performance by Corey Robinson or a sign of things to come? And lost in the mix against the Spartans was tight end Troy Niklas. The 6-7, 270-pounder should be a valuable weapon against a trio of linebackers that doesn’t have a man that weighs more than 229 pounds.
Play big in the fourth quarter. Brian Kelly’s team knows how to win close games. If they can get the game into the fourth quarter with the game within reach, the Irish believe they can pull it out.
(Even if it’ll turn the fans into nervous wrecks.)