Notre Dame’s first four plays could’ve served as the CliffsNotes for their 35-21 loss to Oklahoma. On third and long from the Irish 28, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker came unblocked off the backside, hitting Tommy Rees just as he was trying to throw. The ball ended up in linebacker Corey Nelson’s arms, and just 49 seconds into the game, the Sooners were up a touchdown.
Notre Dame’s next play from scrimmage was no better. Looking for TJ Jones on a slant route, Rees missed Jones but hit Sooner cornerback Aaron Colvin, who batted the ball into the air, where it was snatched up by linebacker Frank Shannon. Shannon scampered down the field, giving the Sooners the ball inside Notre Dame’s 35-yard line. Four plays later, Oklahoma was up 14 points
“If you’re going to turn the football over and give Oklahoma a 14 point lead, you’re in trouble,” Brian Kelly said after the game.
Even as the Irish tried their best to dig out of it, Bob Stoops’ Sooners seemed to have an answer for every counter the Irish seemed to mount. Riding an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers — all of which were turned into touchdowns — and a mistake-free performance by Blake Bell, Oklahoma earned a big non-conference victory to close out September.
Let’s find out what else we learned in Oklahoma’s 35-21 victory over Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s slow start practically doomed them from the beginning.
After a clockwork opening quarter against Temple, the first quarter has been a disaster for Notre Dame. We’ve talked about it before, but after three-and-outs against Michigan, and even uglier starts against Purdue and Michigan State, the Irish found the only way to one-up that futility with two interceptions in their first four offensive plays.
When asked about the slow starts, Kelly was candid about his frustrations.
“If I knew what that was, I would not be standing here right now. I’d be doing something else,” Kelly said. “This is my 23rd year as a head coach. You never expect to not pick up the simplest of stunts. You never expect not to run the right route when you’re supposed to. But they happen.
“That’s why we have ulcers in this business. So you go back and you’ve got to coach. You’ve got to do a better job communicating. Ultimately it falls on me. We lost today.”
Credit should go to the Irish for fighting back, making a game of it and pulling within a touchdown both late in the second quarter and again in the second half. But Kelly’s prediction that Notre Dame needed to play their best game to win proved true, and now it’s up to this staff to find some answers for the early woes.
Just as he was starting to look like the odd man out, George Atkinson took back the No. 1 running back job.
Late in the first quarter, freshman Tarean Folston burst around the left side of the offensive line, sprinting for a 36-yard gain before being tackled inside the Oklahoma five-yard line. The freshman looked like he was racing to the top of a jumbled depth chart, with five backs all jockeying for position behind him.
And then George Atkinson reminded everybody why Kelly and the coaching staff can’t give up on him. Atkinson played his finest game in an Irish uniform, gaining 148 yards on just 14 carries, with his 80-yard touchdown run a reminder that the Irish have one of college football’s most explosive players in their backfield.
All of that doesn’t matter if Atkinson doesn’t run like it. And after four games, the 220-pound back was given a stark appraisal of his work by Kelly this week.
“We didn’t think George ran physical enough. We told him that,” Kelly said. “We told him if he wanted to be the starter, he can’t get tackled by his ankles. He’s 220 pounds and I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball. He’s got to do that every week.”
Entering the game ranked 100th in rushing, the Irish did their job running the football. The Irish gained 220 yards on the ground, netting a hearty 7.6 yards per carry with Folston also looking very good on his two touches.
With it painfully obvious that the Irish are simply unable to beat a quality opponent if they’re forced to be a one-dimensional passing team, the ground game’s revival might be the one positive that the Irish can take out of Saturday’s lost offensively.
This offense can’t succeed if it’s hoisted solely on the shoulders of Tommy Rees.
It was an ugly step backwards for Tommy Rees, who finished the day 9 of 24 for just 104 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Dissecting the turnovers will help shine a kinder light on Rees — the backside blitz snafu wasn’t his fault, nor was an incorrect pattern by DaVaris Daniels on his third — but a combined 39 percent passing over the last two Saturdays is a pretty glaring datapoint that Rees can’t be the man that serves as the engine of the Irish offense.
“We don’t want to put Tommy in a position where he’s got to carry the whole load,” Kelly said after the game. “We thought in the second half we were able to get into a position where we ran the football, play action pass, some quick throws. That’s how we want to play.”
That was evident in the game plan, which used two tight end formations and Andrew Hendrix in short yardage and zone read looks, his first playing time of any importance since the Champs Sports Bowl at the end of the ’11 season. Hendrix didn’t necessarily look comfortable out there, but he did add another wrinkle to the Irish offense, especially in short yardage situations.
After being questioned about his offense’s predictability, Kelly’s curveball at quarterback could be a sign of things to come.
“We’re just trying to diversify the offense a little bit, trying to add some more looks,” Kelly said on Hendrix’s inclusion in the game plan. “He’s got some work to do. We’ve got to continue to work with him, but I think it gives us some things that the defense has to defend as well with him in there.”
Rees’s performance awoke a mob of critics that hardly ever go far from the scene. But with Notre Dame’s starting quarterback sitting in San Diego because of an academic impropriety, the vitriol for a senior leader that’s done nothing but his best for the Irish football program these past four seasons is one of the ugliest parts of Notre Dame Nation.
“We don’t want to put this whole thing on Tommy,” Kelly said. “It’s everybody. We always go back to the quarterback around here. But this is about eleven players.”
Even a great defensive effort can be undone quickly by inconsistency.
There was plenty of good mixed in by Bob Diaco’s defense, who did a nice job containing the Sooners’ passing game for most of the afternoon. But on a critical third down and short when the Irish needed a stop, Blake Bell hit an easy slant route to Sterling Shepard that all but sealed the football game for Oklahoma.
“I thought we gave up one play that we’d love to have back,” Kelly said after the game. “You know, the quick slant where we let Shepard inside. Just something that shouldn’t happen. Other than that, we were doing a really good job defensively against a very good offense.”
Oklahoma’s offense was able to run the football against the Irish, running for 212 yards and five yards a carry after being held to less than a yard a carry last season. And after establishing the ground game with the Sooners’ stable of backs and both Bell and backup quarterback Trevor Knight, that success opened up a back-breaking pass play that came out of a short-yardage running formation.
“When you can run the football in those sets, people have to start trickling down from the secondary to stop the run,” Stoops explained. “Generally, you can find some space to make big plays. Fortunately, we caught one.”
With Sheldon Day still hampered by an ankle injury, the Irish got a nice effort by Kona Schwenke. Carlo Calabrese led the Irish with ten tackles. Freshman Jaylon Smith made seven stops and both Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt were active as well.
But with the chips in the middle and the defense needing a critical stop after clawing back to within a touchdown, they couldn’t deliver. In a scene too reminiscent of the fourth quarter in Ann Arbor, when it was time for one team to make a play, the opponent made it.
Fans and media members can focus on the implications of the loss. Brian Kelly and the Irish are going to get back to work.
You can understand if Brian Kelly wasn’t too interested in discussing the Irish’s BCS hopes with the calendar still in September. That’s the type of big picture thinking that’s so destructive to a team that’s already dropped two games.
“I don’t really care about that stuff,” Kelly said after the game. “That’s for you guys to talk about. I’ve got a football team here we’re trying to develop and work with.”
After five games, it’s easy to look at the remaining schedule and wonder what could be in store for an Irish team that is in the middle of its toughest stretch and still needs to play four games that look very losable on paper. But that’s not how this program operates.
“This is a group that each one of them knows why we lost the game,” Kelly said. “Each coach, each player in that locker room. This is a transparent group. There is nobody in there that is pointing a finger. There are only thumb pointers in there.”
On Saturday, turnovers told the story, stacking the deck against a team that fought its hardest to get back into the game after spotting a talented opponent 14 points. While the Irish stayed with their game plan throughout most of the first half, the mistakes proved too costly as the Irish tried to play catch-up in the second half.
“I wanted to be in two tight ends and I wanted to run the football, and I wanted to run play action and I wanted to be able to control the game that way,” Kelly said of his original game plan.
“You just can’t turn the football the way we did. If we take care of the football, we might be in overtime right now. Who knows? But the bottom line from this offense is take care of the football. Play good defense. And these kids will battle their butts off and find a way to win.”
It wasn’t all negative on Saturday afternoon, though the Irish loss will likely knock Notre Dame out of the Top 25 for the first time since the second week of the ’12 season. The running game looks to have found its identity. The defense continues to make progress. And while it’s easy to think about what could’ve been had the Irish not started out so terribly, it’s back to the grind for the Irish, who next take on Arizona State, one of the most explosive passing teams in the country next Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium.
“We’re four years into our program. We know clearly what needs to be done,” Kelly said. “We’ll get back to work on Tuesday and work to get better.”