Fifth-ranked Notre Dame faces their toughest test of the season when they travel to Oklahoma to face an eight-ranked Sooners’ squad with an explosive and red-hot offense.
The Fighting Irish are undefeated, but have not faced a school that is capable of scoring like Oklahoma, who has just one loss on the season.
The Sooners have averaged more than 44 points a game this season, and are coming off victories over then-No. 15 Texas and Kansas, where they combined to out-score their opponents 115-28. Fourth-year starting quarterback Landry Jones has appeared more comfortable in his last three games with seven touchdown passes and one interception, and the running game has improved behind the play of junior running back Damien Williams.
Not only is the Oklahoma offense rolling, but the defense has been effective in recent weeks, as well. The Sooners have faced opponents with a reputation for tacking on total yards, but have stifled them.
Texas averaged over 48 points per game in their six other games, but managed to only score two offensive touchdowns against Oklahoma’s defense, and both scores came in the fourth quarter when the Sooners were leading by 48 points.
So how can the Fighting Irish beat Oklahoma?
One way Notre Dame can contain the Sooners’ offense is by blitzing only four or five players. The Irish have proven to have a strong pass rush this season, and will probably need to prevent Jones from finding his rhythm without allowing him to avoid sacks by making short passes to the backfield, that can cause havoc for the linebackers.
But Notre Dame’s defensive unit will have to be cautious of the Oklahoma playmakers because they are extremely capable of turning small plays into big plays.
The defensive line has been a major asset for the Irish. Defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt gave the BYU offensive line plenty of problems on Saturday, though the duo will need to be even more effective against Oklahoma. Notre Dame limited the Cougars to just 66 yards rushing on 25 carries, but is facing a faster Oklahoma squad.
Notre Dame will probably also need to be creative with their play calling. In seven games, the Irish have only scored more than 20 points twice – against Navy and Miami. The Irish likely will need to put up a lot of points, and limit how much Oklahoma’s offense is on the field.
That means Notre Dame will need to use their running backs, which have been rather patchwork. Theo Riddick has emerged as the featured tail back, but will likely face far better tackling than BYU showed. Notre Dame is capable of effectively running on Oklahoma, but may need to use reverses and fakes to pick up big enough gains to sustain time-consuming drives.
The Irish scored on a third and goal against BYU by using a fake, and finding George Atkinson, who appeared to be disguised as a blocker. Those kinds of plays might be the recipe for moving the ball on Oklahoma.
Quarterback Everett Golson will also need to be on his game. The redshirt freshman needs to limit his mistakes by not taking risky passes into double coverage.
Golson, who has thrown three interceptions and has lost four fumbles, has been cleared to play after successfully undergoing post-concussion exercises. Notre Dame must receive steady play at quarterback against an athletic Oklahoma squad.
There is little margin for error against Oklahoma. Notre Dame needs to not only protect the football, but avoid penalties.
The Sooners are favored by 10, but Notre Dame can upset Oklahoma if Golson is sharp, the offense throws off the Oklahoma defense by calling sophisticated running plays, and the defense doesn’t overcommit but still put enough pressures on Jones that he makes mistakes.