The No. 14-ranked Oklahoma Sooners ride into South Bend for a Saturday afternoon showdown (NBC, 3:30 p.m. ET) with the No. 22-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. After last season’s 30–13 Notre Dame upset of Oklahoma in Norman, this rematch has been circled on the calendar as OU looks to circle the wagons for a redemption win on the road.
While the Sooners are favored by 3-to-3.5 points, depending on the betting line, the Fighting Irish are far from the longshot 10-point underdogs they were in last year’s matchup. In fact, the Golden Domers have more than a few edges over Boomer Sooner. Here are five reasons Notre Dame will beat Oklahoma — again.
1. Fighting Fat Boys
Notre Dame’s defense is once again anchored by its pair of NFL-caliber monsters in the middle, senior nose tackle Louis Nix III and junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt. No team in the country boasts a more intimidating duo down low in the trenches. Nix, a.k.a. “Irish Chocolate,” weighs in at 6’2.5” and 342 pounds. Tuitt is a towering 6’6.5” and a svelte 312 pounds. But Nix and Tuitt aren’t just big; they’re athletic, efficient and play nasty with a mean streak.
“Defensively, (Notre Dame) is still very good and physical up front. Structurally sound and disciplined with how they play,” said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
Last season, Nix, Tuitt and Co. engulfed the Sooners running game. Oklahoma ended with just 15 rushing yards on 24 carries, averaging an embarrassing 0.6 yards per carry in defeat. OU enters this year’s contest with the nation’s 16th-best running game, averaging 271.7 yards per game on the ground in wins over ULM (34–0), West Virginia (16–7) and Tulsa (51–20).
The Sooners O-line, led by All-America candidate center Gabe Ikard, must move Irish immovable mountains Nix and Tuitt in order to avoid last year’s disastrous results.
2. Wake Up the Echoes
When: Saturday, Sept. 28, 2:30 PM (CT)
The Irish have also won 10 consecutive games at Notre Dame Stadium with Touchdown Jesus watching over. This week, the faithful will be wearing the four-leaf clover green in a “Green Out” of the stadium.
“We will not be wearing green jerseys, but the Leprechaun Legion and the Kelly Cares Foundation will be giving out upwards of 40,000 pompoms,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “It’s a ‘Green Out’ officially this weekend for Oklahoma.”
3. The Tommy Rees Experience
Sure, Fighting Irish fans were deflated when Everett Golson was suspended for the season. But senior quarterback Tommy Rees is a low-risk leader who provides the type of stability under center that Notre Dame will need to beat Oklahoma. He’s no Rick Mirer or Brady Quinn, but who is?
This season, Rees has thrown for 1,111 yards, eight TDs and two INTs, with both of his picks coming in the Irish’s only loss, at Michigan (41–30). He combined to throw six TDs and zero INTs in Notre Dame’s three wins — Temple (28–6), at Purdue (31–24) and Michigan State (17–13).
Rees is 17–5 as a starter at ND, with wins over USC, Miami, Utah, Navy, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Boston College and Purdue under his belt. His counterpart, Oklahoma’s Blake Bell, was Bob Stoops’ second choice after losing a quarterback competition to Trevor Knight. Injury has thrown the goal line gimmick known as the “Belldozer” into the fire. Bell is 1–0 as a starter at OU and has never made a start on the road.
Who ya got? The veteran resumé or the road rookie?
4. Mike Stoops’ 3-3-5 Defense
Bob’s little brother Mike is back at helm of the Sooners stop-unit, in his second year of his second stint with the program. And the former Arizona head coach has gone all mad scientist this season, switching the OU base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5.
“They’ve gone to a 3-3-5 defensive structure, whereas they were a four down (lineman) team last year. You’d have to ask them why,” said Kelly. “If I was to guess, it’s to probably handle a lot of the spread offenses in the Big 12.”
That is a logical assumption, since Oklahoma allowed an average of 43 points per game against speedy spreads Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M last year. But Notre Dame does not want to spread the field. Kelly’s philosophy is predicated on ground-and-pound, protect the football and then win a close call in the end. The Irish are 10–1 in their last 11 games decided by a touchdown or less.
5. Big Game Bob
Bob Stoops has been rumored for the Notre Dame job before. As a Midwestern Catholic BCS national champion, he checks all the boxes. But he’s only coached one game at Notre Dame, a 34–30 loss to the Irish in 1999. In his fourth game as the coach at OU, Stoops’ Sooners let a 16-point lead slip away, allowing 20 unanswered points in the first defeat of his head-coaching career.
Stoops has come a long way since then, with eight Big 12 titles and raising BCS crystal over 14 seasons. But he has lost his spark in big games. Over the past four seasons, the Sooners are 13–9 against ranked opponents, with four other upset losses against unranked teams. Take Texas out of the equation and OU’s senior class carries a mediocre 10–9 record vs. Top 25 teams.
Oklahoma may be the favorite at Notre Dame, but winning on the road in a hostile environment with an inexperienced quarterback, limited running game and completely new defensive scheme won’t be easy.
“How could going to Notre Dame be easy?” said Stoops. “At the end of the day, that’s ridiculous. They’re an incredibly great, physical football team. Great quarterback play. Tough and good. It’ll be a huge challenge.”