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Athlon previews the top-10 matchup between the Sooners and Fighting Irish.
It’s not often college football has a marquee non-conference game at the end of October. However, that’s the stage set on Saturday night, as Oklahoma and Notre Dame – two top-10 teams in the BCS – will meet in Norman. The Sooners have won three in a row since losing to Kansas State, while Notre Dame has a perfect 7-0 record.
These two teams have not met since 1999, with Oklahoma only winning once in nine matchups against the Irish. The Sooners beat Notre Dame 40-0 in 1956 but followed that victory up with six consecutive losses in this series.
With both teams ranked in the top 10 of the BCS, this is essentially an elimination game for the national title. If the Irish win, they should cruise to an 11-0 record before playing USC in the season finale. If the Sooners knock off Notre Dame, they will have an opportunity to jump into the top six of the BCS standings. Considering Oklahoma was thought to be out of the mix after losing to Kansas State, it’s a credit to Bob Stoops and the coaching staff for getting this team refocused on the remaining schedule and the opportunities that await this squad if they win out (and get a little help in the process).
Storylines to watch in Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma
Notre Dame’s Quarterback Play
With Everett Golson sidelined due to a concussion last week, Tommy Rees was forced to make his second start of the season. Rees completed only 7 of 16 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown against BYU, while backup Andrew Hendrix chipped in 14 rushing yards. Golson is expected to return to the starting lineup this week but is still looking for consistency in his first year as the No. 1 quarterback. The redshirt freshman has thrown for 968 yards and four touchdowns but has also tossed three picks. Golson is Notre Dame’s most complete quarterback and gives it the best chance to win. However, ball security and winning the turnover battle will be crucial to the outcome of this matchup. Oklahoma is allowing only 164.3 passing yards a game and has given up only three passing touchdowns this season. Not only does Golson need to play smart but he also has to be decisive with his reads and deliver the ball on time. Expect senior tight end Tyler Eifert to be the primary target for Golson, but the redshirt freshman needs receivers TJ Jones and Davaris Daniels to step up this week.
Stopping the Belldozer
Considering how tough both teams have been on defense this year, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals will be crucial to winning this game. Notre Dame’s rush defense is allowing just over 100 yards a game (106.7) but has yet to allow a rushing score this season. The main catalyst for the Irish’s success on defense has been the play of linebacker Manti Te’o. The senior is having an outstanding year, recording 69 tackles, four interceptions and two tackles for a loss. In addition to Te’o, the Irish have one of the top defensive lines in college football, led by junior nose guard Louis Nix and sophomore end Stephon Tuitt. Although Notre Dame’s defense has passed every test so far, Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell has been the top weapon for the Sooners’ offense around the goal-line, scoring eight rushing scores on 15 carries inside of the 10-yard line. No defense has found an answer to stop the Belldozer package over the last two years. With Notre Dame’s strong front seven, this should be a strength versus strength matchup for both teams.
Oklahoma’s passing offense vs. Notre Dame’s secondary
Despite breaking in two new starting cornerbacks and losing safety Jamoris Slaughter to an injury earlier this season, Notre Dame’s secondary ranks 14th nationally in pass defense. This unit figures to be tested on Saturday night, as Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones is the best passer the Irish have seen so far this year. Jones has thrown at least two touchdown passes in each of his last three games and has back-to-back 300-yard efforts. The senior also has a talented group of receivers, led by Kenny Stills and Penn State transfer Justin Brown. If Jones has time to throw, opportunities to make plays downfield should be there. However, Notre Dame is averaging 2.7 sacks a game and has done a good job of generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks all year. If Oklahoma can keep Jones upright in the pocket, the Sooners should be able to move the ball through the air.
Notre Dame’s rush offense vs. Oklahoma defense
With redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson making only his second road start, Notre Dame needs to take the pressure off his shoulders with the rushing attack. In last week’s win over BYU, the Irish recorded 270 rushing yards, with Theo Riddick leading the way with 143 yards. The Sooners rank 46th nationally against the run but have held two out of their last three opponents under 100 yards on the ground. Riddick and Cierre Wood don’t have to match last week’s production, but both players need to have some success on early downs to keep Notre Dame out of third-and-long situations. Expect Oklahoma to counter by stacking the box and forcing Golson to win the game through the air.
The x-factor…special teams
As with every close game, special teams could play a huge role in determining the outcome. Oklahoma owns a edge in this department, as it ranks in the top 10 nationally of punt and kickoff returns, and punter Tress Way is averaging 43.2 yards per kick. The Sooners have also scored twice on returns, which has to be a huge concern for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. The Irish have struggled to generate any big plays on special teams, while their coverage units rank 92nd nationally in covering kickoffs. Considering how tough Notre Dame’s defense has been all season, Oklahoma needs to hit a few big plays on special teams to put its offense in favorable field position situations.
The mission for both teams is simple: Win and stay alive in the BCS title picture. Oklahoma has been on a roll since losing to Kansas State in late September and should have the edge in this game. The Sooners will struggle to move the ball on the ground with running back Damien Williams, but the passing attack should be able to hit a few big plays – if Landry Jones has time to throw. Notre Dame’s offense will have success moving the ball at times but this is the game where not having a consistent passing attack will catch up to the Irish.
Final Prediction: Oklahoma 27, Notre Dame 20
by Steven Lassan
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