Commentary

Win raises OU profile, expectations

Originally Published: September 28, 2013
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When Oklahoma and Notre Dame met last year in Norman, Okla., one team walked off the field with the privilege of possibility, the ability to dream big.

The Sooners were not that team. Their second loss virtually eliminated them from national title contention and ensured that another season beginning with a top-5 ranking would end in some degree of disappointment. Running back Brennan Clay still believed the Sooners had a title shot -- "Some team went down late in the season," he recalled -- but he might have been the only one.

Notre Dame gained the validation that day, and the Irish went on to play for the crystal football.

There's no telling whether Oklahoma will do the same Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif. But the Sooners have the authority to heighten expectations. They earned that right with a 35-21 victory at Notre Dame Stadium.

"No doubt in my mind," Clay said, "that we're a national championship-type of team."

There have been plenty of doubts about Oklahoma, more so than in previous seasons.

The Sooners came in at No. 16 in the AP preseason poll, the first time since 2000 that they entered the season outside the top 10. They had question marks at quarterback and with a defense that had been quite un-Stoops-like in 2012, finishing 50th nationally in points allowed, 89th against the run, 70th in sacks and 112th in tackles for loss.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Darron CummingsBlake Bell had a complete performance in his first start on the road, against Notre Dame no less.

Oklahoma might not have been in rebuilding mode. But few viewed the Sooners as championship material, either.

Now they're 4-0 after a definitive win against last year's national runner-up. Bob Stoops and his players won't look ahead, but you can. Oklahoma faces two teams that have underachieved to date (TCU, Texas), a weak Kansas squad and Texas Tech at home before visiting Baylor on Nov. 7 in a game that could decide the Big 12 title.

"We've got a chance to continue to be really good," Stoops said. "But we're a work in progress. It's only our fourth game."

Stoops downplayed the revenge factor against Notre Dame, saying it's a sign of disrespect to the opponent that beats you. But his brother, Mike, the Sooners' defensive coordinator, played up the fact that the Sooners weren't vastly inferior to Notre Dame, despite last year's final score (30-13).

"We knew we didn't get blown out last year," Mike Stoops said. "People want to say we did. They really agitated us, that the pundits said we got blown out when it's 13-13 with six minutes to go in the game. That stuck in our craw."

Last year's late collapse made finishing a focal point for the coaching staff this week, but the Sooners won Saturday with their start. On the game's third play, linebacker Eric Striker came unblocked from the left side, blindsiding Tommy Rees, whose pass fluttered into Corey Nelson's hands.

One of the easier pick-sixes you'll ever see put Oklahoma up seven points. Another interception followed on the next play, and Oklahoma converted to lead 14-0 just 165 seconds into the game.

"It's unbelievable," quarterback Blake Bell said. "Them coming out and doing what they did and making some of the big stops was awesome."

Bell's teammates ensured that his first career road start would go as smoothly as possible. The defense recorded three first-half interceptions, matching its total from the first three games, and all led to Sooners touchdowns.

The offensive line protected Bell all game, particularly on a 26-yard scoring strike to Lacoltan Bester, who, by the way, had never caught a touchdown. Clay led a balanced rushing attack (212 rush yards), while the defense limited Notre Dame to 12 first downs.

"We ran the ball great," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell told a fellow staffer on the field after the game. "We couldn't do that a year ago."

Oklahoma finished with just 15 rush yards in last year's loss, unable to handle Louis Nix and the rest of the Irish defense.

Bell certainly did his part, displaying tremendous accuracy (22-of-30), dual-threat ability (232 pass yards, 59 rush yards) and, perhaps most important, excellent decision-making skills (zero turnovers) despite the stage and the setting. His biggest mistake: failing to adequately hydrate at halftime, which led to a third-quarter cramp and a hobble to the locker room.

[+] EnlargeFrank Shannon
AP Photo/Darron CummingsOklahoma's defense intercepted Tommy Rees three times, including this one by Frank Shannon.

"[Co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel] was so mad, like, 'Really? You're cramping?'" Bob Stoops said. "He said he's never had a cramp. So obviously, it's something we have to be more aware of moving on down the road here.

"Otherwise, we could have gassed him up at halftime."

Gas up the Belldozer? The T-shirts are already being printed.

Bell's cramp allowed him a Willis Reed moment, as he returned to the field, only to see Notre Dame close to within six points in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Bell proceeded to lead the game's decisive drive, going 3-for-3 on pass attempts, the last a 54-yard touchdown to Sterling Shepard.

"The tale of the Belldozer keeps growing," Sooners center Gabe Ikard said.

"I'll take most of the blame on that," Bell said. "I've gotta hydrate. As a player, you don't want to get pulled off and taken to the locker room. I definitely wanted to get back out there quick."

As the final minutes ticked away and the "Boomer, Sooner" chant echoed throughout the stadium, an Oklahoma band member joked, "Where's Everett? Where's Manti?"

The absences of quarterback Everett Golson and linebacker Manti Te'o continue to be felt for Notre Dame, which received heroics from both, particularly Te'o, last year in Norman. Rees became the first Notre Dame quarterback in at least 10 years to throw three interceptions in a half, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The Irish never recovered from the giveaways, and their defense -- lacking a game-changer like Te'o -- surrendered 450 yards.

"You can put us in whatever bowl you want," coach Brian Kelly said. "We've got to coach better, we've got to develop our players better, and we'll let you decide what that means."

Few rational folks will put Notre Dame in a BCS bowl, with two losses already and remaining games against Arizona State, USC, BYU and Stanford.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, will rise in the projections.

This marked a historic win for the Sooners, both generally and, in many cases, personally. Oklahoma recorded just its second win in 11 games against Notre Dame, its first since 1956. Although Bob Stoops has coached the Sooners for only two of the setbacks, he admitted the 1999 loss, in which OU blew a 16-point lead at Notre Dame Stadium, was "a little bit of a sore spot."

"It's so special coming here," Mike Stoops said. "There's so much history between the two programs. This is what college football should be."

The win hit home for Bob Stoops, who exited the field holding hands with his mother, Dee. He corrected a reporter who called him simply a Catholic kid -- "I've got six kids in the family. You know we're Irish, right? -- and celebrated with a large contingent from his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

The significance also wasn't lost on Bell, a devout Catholic whose family rented a house here for the weekend. Three weeks ago, he was a backup. Saturday, he led Oklahoma to victory in the shadows of Touchdown Jesus.

"This is a pretty big deal for me," Bell said.

But the biggest deal for Oklahoma, the most significant bit of history coming out of Saturday, is what still could come.

"I'm excited to see where this team takes us," Clay said. "It's going to be a good year."

Maybe even a special one.

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