NOTRE DAME — In the first eight weeks of the season, Notre Dame has faced teams that had massive strengths tripped up by glaring weaknesses.
Michigan State had a big defense and a quality running back, but no pass game to provide relief. Miami had a speedy, explosive offense but no defense to help close out games. BYU had a stifling run defense but no real offensive firepower.
No. 8 Oklahoma (5-1) is, by and large, the complete package.
Between a talented quarterback leading the Sooners to nearly 500 total yards and 45 points per game to a shut-down defense only allowing 94 passing yards and 15 points per game, it’s hard to find a glaring weakness on the Oklahoma roster.
No. 5 Notre Dame (7-0) will try to defend its undefeated record at a hostile, rowdy Owen Field, which has only seen four Oklahoma losses since 1999.
Notre Dame safety Zeke Motta isn’t shy about playing up Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones.
“Pocket presence, his ability to put the ball where he needs to, his accuracy,” Motta said of Jones. “He’s probably the best quarterback we’re going to face to date.”
Jones and the Sooners play a fast-paced, hurry-up offense that likes to catch defenses off guard. Jones plants his feet into the grass and enjoys time in the pocket before finding Kenny Stills, Sterling Shepard and Justin Brown downfield.
Except for the opener against UTEP, Jones has thrown for at least 250 yards and two touchdowns in every game Oklahoma has won.
Stills, Brown and Shepard share eight of Jones’ 12 passing touchdowns. The receiving trio has combined for seven 70-plus-yard games this season.
On the ground, junior tailback Damien Williams has racked up an impressive 7.4 yards per carry for seven touchdowns on 74 carries this season. Backup quarterback Blake Bell — dubbed “The Belldozer” for his hulking 6-foot-6, 254-pound frame — has smashed the ball into the end zone eight times on 15 carries inside the red zone.
The good news is Notre Dame’s defense will be the best Oklahoma has faced all year. The five teams Oklahoma has beaten average the 69th best total defense and 69th best scoring defense compared to Notre Dame’s sixth-ranked total defense and second-ranked scoring defense.
The Sooners secondary stars safeties Tony Jefferson and Jevon Harris, who lead the team with 48 and 34 tackles apiece. Harris has a team-high four interceptions, while Jefferson has one.
Seven of Oklahoma’s last eight interceptions have come in the last three games, which helped the Sooners stay at No. 6 in pass defense with a mere 94 passing yards per game allowed.
Oklahoma’s run defense isn’t as statistically impressive, having allowed three 100-plus-yard running backs this season. In the Sooners’ loss to Kansas State, the Wildcats ran for 200 yards.
If Notre Dame will stand a chance tonight, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III will have to keep running the ball the way they did against Stanford and BYU. Taking pressure off of Everett Golson is essential in the matchup.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Get to Landry Jones. In Oklahoma’s lone loss of the season, Jones threw an interception, lost a fumble that Kansas Sate returned for a touchdown and was sacked twice and hurried twice. Since then, he’s thrown a total of 880 yards and seven touchdowns in three games while only being sacked twice and picked off once in the same time span.
If the Notre Dame front seven can harass Jones enough to keep him out of a rhythm, the quarterback will likely buckle under the pressure. When forced outside the pocket, Jones’ 62 percent completion rate plummets to 27 percent.
Score in the red zone. It sounds obvious, but the Irish have only scored 76 percent of the time in their 34 trips to the red zone. They can’t afford that low a number against an Oklahoma team scoring 97 percent of the time it crosses the 20-yard line. The Irish defense is doing its part; time for the offense to execute on the short field.
Win the special teams battle. If Notre Dame wins, it will be because the Irish won the little battles along the way, namely in field position. Kyle Brindza can’t miss more 24-yard field goals. Davonte Neal can’t run backwards on punt returns. Ben Turk needs to keep booting 50-yard punts.
Notre Dame will likely have to rely on a mistake-free game from Golson, a strong special teams performance and a defensive touchdown to bring down the Sooners. If all of those things happen, the game will at least be close.
If Notre Dame tries to play catch-up for the third week in a row, the Irish will get burned by 20 points. It’ll be close, but Oklahoma just looks too impermeable at home to lose this one.
Oklahoma 20, Notre Dame 13