Remember Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor’s game-tying, overtime touchdown on fourth and inches from the 1-yard line against Notre Dame’s second-ranked scoring defense?
Depending on which fanbase you ask, it either didn't happen or the officials were complicit in a wide-ranging conspiracy to keep Notre Dame’s national championship hopes alive that wiped Taylor’s second effort from the scoreboard and the rest of the nation’s memory banks. Fortunately, for Sooner fans, they don't have concerns about crossing the goal line against Notre Dame's stacked defensive front seven. They've flourished in those situations all season.
They’re currently tied for first in the nation in fourth-down conversions.
While senior Landry Jones is Oklahoma's all-time career passing yardage leader and the pilot that has navigated the nation’s fifth-ranked scoring offense, he’s not even their primo quarterback option inside the 10-yard line. The honor belongs to sophomore Blake Bell, the Sooners 6-foot-6 redzone specialist.
You’d think a signal caller with towering height and a howitzer for an arm who threw for 69 touchdowns in his final two high school seasons would use his size to peer at receivers over his hulking offensive line. Instead, Bell is utilized as a 255-pound bowling ball in the Sooners Belldozer formation.
This season, Bell has 15 carries inside the 10-yard line of opposing defenses. Eight of those rushes have resulted in the Sooners cashing in for touchdowns. On Saturday night, Notre Dame’s stout defense becomes the toughest 11 pins Bell will face this season. Notre Dame’s defense has allowed just four yards on nine rushes by opposing offenses this season and is the only major college football team that hasn’t allowed a single rushing touchdown.
Conversely, while Oklahoma benefits from a surplus of supremely talented signal callers with varying skillsets, the Fighting Irish are at the mercy of their inconsistent symbiotic quarterbacks.
Following returning junior starter Tommy Rees' suspension as a result of his May arrest outside an on-campus party, sophomore Everett Golson stepped up and emerged victorious from a summer battle with Andrew Hendrix.
While Golson’s mobility has brought a new dynamic to Notre Dame’s offense, his passing acumen has left much to be desired. Fortunately, his understudy, Rees, has been the best backup in a pinch, outside of Joe Girardi's bench, while rallying Notre Dame to come from behind victories over Stanford, Michigan, BYU and Purdue.
If Bell's specialty is fourth-and-short, Rees' is the fourth quarter.
Together, the Fighting Irish’s quarterbacks resemble Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor’s crime-solving titular ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil’ characters. Both have their respective handicaps but this blue-collar tandem has somehow thrust Notre Dame into the heart of the national title conversation.
However, like Pryor and Wilder's duo, the Fighting Irish’s quarterback depth chart is a running mystery. This week, Golson will return to the starting lineup but it remains to be seen whether he will be finisher.
Notre Dame’s offense has done enough to survive but against Oklahoma’s ninth-ranked passing defense, the Fighting Irish’s 98th ranked passing attack must have a come to Touchdown Jesus moment.
"The defense has kept us in a lot of games," said Irish left tackle Zack Martin, "but in games like this against Oklahoma, we're going to have to put some points up because their offense is very explosive and we know we're going to have to start pulling away a little bit more. Our offense has done just enough all year just to win. It's our turn to step up."
The last time college football fans saw a revolving quarterback predicament of this ilk from a top-five team led by a shutdown defense, Les Miles was rotating pocket passing Jarrett Lee and recidivist troublemaker/poor decision-making dual threat Jordan Jefferson. Somehow, they survived the SEC gauntlet undefeated.
True freshman and fourth-stringer Gunner Kiel narrowly avoided enrolling in LSU’s offensive circus. This season he’s observing one up close and personal in South Bend. It’s hard to imagine him not beginning 2013 as QB1 but for the Fighting Irish, the urgency of now is their focus.
When Oklahoma and Notre Dame meet, the pursuit of a national championship this season will be on the minds of Golden Domers and Boomer Sooners. Ultimately, the winner will have to rely on their respective quarterbacks but nobody has a clue as to which one will make the decisive play. Jones and Golson will start this clash between college football royalty but don't be surprised if backups Bell and Rees have the final say.
When: 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC
Where: Oklahoma Memorial Stadium
Where To Watch Online: No. 5 Notre Dame vs. No. 8 Oklahoma