NOTRE DAME — A year ago, Notre Dame won the game in an electrifying final three minutes on the road against Oklahoma.
On Saturday, Sept. 28, Notre Dame lost the game in a catastrophic opening three minutes at home against Oklahoma.
There were no Everett Golson and Theo Riddick late-game heroics this time around. There was just Zack Martin allowing a rare blindside hit on Tommy Rees for the pick-6 on the opening drive.
And there was just Rees throwing another interception on the first play of the following drive, giving the Sooners an opportunity to make short work of a short field for another seven points.
“You spot a great team like Oklahoma 14 points, you’re putting yourself in a tough situation,” head coach Brian Kelly said.
The pass offense dug the Irish into a 14-point hole, then turned the spade over to the running backs and defense to dig the team back out.
And they very nearly did.
George Atkinson emerged from the shadows to rush for a career-high 148 yards — including a blistering 80-yard touchdown dash — on 14 carries. Freshmen Tarean Folston only touched the ball twice, but churned out 43 yards in the process.
The Irish defense, which surrendered its first rushing touchdown of the season to Blake Bell a year ago, plugged the 6-foot-6, 250-pound quarterback on nearly every third-and-short situation, holding the Sooners to six points in the third quarter and handing the offense opportunity after opportunity to rally.
Even Rees, who threw another interception late in the second quarter, found in TJ Jones in the back of the end zone and Troy Niklas on a busted OU coverage in an otherwise woeful passing performance.
On the back of Atkinson and occasional flashes of promise from Rees, Notre Dame clawed its way back within six points to open up the fourth quarter. This suddenly looked like the team that scored 20 points on the Sooners in the fourth quarter a year earlier.
But Oklahoma reminded the Irish — painfully — that they aren’t last year’s team.
Sterling Shepard slipped past linebacker Jarrett Grace for a back-breaking 53-yard touchdown catch and run, and Notre Dame couldn’t find any answers in the final 12 minutes.
The No. 22 Irish (3-2) may have crawled back to the brim of the hole, but No. 14 Oklahoma (4-0) stepped on their fingers. When the final score reads 35-21 in Oklahoma’s favor, knowing where those extra 14 points came from is the real dagger.
“You can’t turn over the ball three times and expect to win against a team like Oklahoma,” receiver TJ Jones said. ”When you feel that you give the defense 14 points and then you lose by 14, it’s frustrating.”
The Irish finished with 220 rushing yards, more than what it had against Purdue and Michigan State combined. Stephon Tuitt played his best game of the year, finishing with five tackles, a sack and two quarterback hurries.
Some of Notre Dame’s personnel questions were answered, and some solidified positions drew new questions, further jumbling the puzzle. Rees, who had been the offense’s rock in the first four games, finished 9-of-24 for 104 yards, three interceptions and two touchdowns.
Jones led receivers with four catches for 42 yards. Deep threat DaVaris Daniels was targeted once for 13 yards. Fan favorite running back Cam McDaniel carried the ball just three times for 13 yards.
“I think what you saw out there is that we have to play better individually, collectively, unit-wise across the board,” Kelly said. “I think we have to coach better. We have to communicate better. I think this is just about us ... developing our football team to play better collectively as a unit, a group.”
Notre Dame is still struggling to gel after five games.
With its BCS bowl game chances on life support, the Irish need to find the adhesive quickly.