Saturday, September 28, 2013
Five things: Notre Dame-Oklahoma
By Matt Fortuna
No. 22 Notre Dame hosts No. 14 Oklahoma today in a rematch of last year's contest in Norman, Okla. Will the Irish improve to 10-1 all-time against the Sooners, or will Blake Bell and Co. put a serious damper on BCS-bowl hopes in South Bend, Ind.?
Here are five things to keep an eye on when these teams square off at 3:30 p.m. ET:
Getting the ground game going: Another week, another plea for the Notre Dame running game to finally take off. The Irish finished with just 78 rushing yards last week, albeit against an elite Michigan State defense. They have now gone three straight games without breaking the 100-yard rushing mark, after opening the season with a 188-yard rushing effort against Temple. Notre Dame ranks 99th nationally in rushing yards per game (114.3), and it will need to have some early success running the ball to beat Oklahoma. In last year's 30-13 win, the Irish out-rushed the Sooners 215-15.
Pressure Bell: Bell is making his first career road start. He had plenty of success in his starting debut two weeks ago, but that was against Tulsa, which, to put it nicely, does not quite have the same man-power up front as Notre Dame. The Irish might have turned a corner defensively in their 17-13 win last week over Michigan State, but we soon will know for sure whether that was truly the case. Stephon Tuitt looked like his old self against the Spartans, and fellow end Sheldon Day is back after missing last week with an ankle sprain, giving the Irish another body on the defensive line. There is no questioning the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Bell-dozer's talent, but Notre Dame can try to make him uncomfortable in an unfamiliar environment and pressure him into mistakes early.
Tackle: Sounds simple enough. Notre Dame had the nation's No. 2 scoring defense last year but the No. 7 overall defense, because it did a tremendous job of keeping the points down and not giving up big plays. Last year's win in Norman was Exhibit A of the Irish D in action: Landry Jones threw for 351 yards and Jalen Saunders caught 15 balls for 181 yards, but the Sooners reached the end zone just once, on a Bell touchdown run. The Irish were a sure-tackling team in the regular season last year, happy to give up the underneath routes and mentally test an offense to march the length of the field over a longer period of time. Sloppy tackling plagued the Irish this year in a loss at Michigan and a narrow win at Purdue, but they still have plenty of the same personnel from last year, and they need to play like it to beat Oklahoma.
Protect the ball: Another bullet-point that sounds straightforward but is more meaningful than most. Tommy Rees has been a much better decision-maker this season, throwing just two interceptions through four games. Not coincidentally, Notre Dame's only loss, at Michigan, was when he threw both picks. Rees wasn't at his best last week against the Spartans, but the Irish won the turnover battle, 1-0, and escaped with a tight win. This is the contest where that veteran savvy will matter most, as Rees is a senior playing in one of the biggest home games of his career, going up against a highly-touted newcomer in Bell, who has never had so much responsibility while walking into an environment like the one he will face in Notre Dame Stadium.
Seeing green: Speaking of the Notre Dame Stadium environment, it will be interesting to see what kind of atmosphere is inside the building come kickoff. The program has called for a "green-out" all week, and Brian Kelly said that 40,000 pom-poms will be given out ahead of the contest. Last year's night game at Owen Field featured the awesome sight of a stadium nearly completely decked out with its alternating crimson- and white-clad sections, and it's neat to see the Notre Dame faithful answer the challenge this year.