Two of the most storied programs in college football history collide in Norman this weekend, as the fifth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish collide with the eighth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners.
Brian Kelly's Irish have put themselves in the conversation regarding a national championship thanks to a stifling defense that has led the team to a flawless 7-0 mark at this point. With wins over the likes of Michigan State, Michigan and Stanford, last weekend's clash with BYU could have been regarded as a trap game and for a while it looked as though it might end up being true. However, the defense pitched a second-half shutout and the Irish rallied from a 14-7 deficit to take a 17-14 victory.
By virtue of their early season loss at home to Kansas State, Bob Stoops Sooners are on the outside looking in at the national title picture. However, the team can thrust itself back into contention with a win over Notre Dame. Oklahoma may be peaking at the right time, entering this contest with a three- game win streak in tow, including a 52-7 pasting of Kansas last week.
This is the first time Notre Dame has traveled to Norman since 1966. The two teams have combined for 15 national titles, with Notre Dame winning eight and Oklahoma right behind with seven. This marks the 10th all-time meeting between these two teams, with Notre Dame holding an impressive 8-1 advantage.
The Irish played without their starting quarterback last week, as Everett Golson sat out the game because of a concussion suffered the week prior. Tommy Rees didn't exactly light up the airways in his absence, but he didn't need to, as the ground game churned out 270 yards in the win.
The ground attack has picked up its pace of late and is now responsible for just under 200 yards per game. The key is backfield depth, as Theo Riddick (451 yards, 4.7 ypc, three TDs), Cierre Wood (393 yards, 6.0 ypc, two TDs) and George Atkinson III (301 yards, four TDs) are all capable of big plays.
Golson will return to action this week and presents his own problems with his athleticism. On the year, the sophomore has completed just under 60 percent of his passes, for 968 yards, with four TDs. Tight end Tyler Eifert (19 receptions, 319 yards, three TDs) is a valuable asset downfield.
The offense has been adequate for Notre Dame, while the defense has been downright awesome. The Irish have yet to give up a rushing touchdown in 2012, and currently rank second nationally in scoring defense (9.4 ppg) and sixth in total defense (280.7 ypg).
Two-time All-American linebacker Manti Te'o is the undeniable leader on defense for the Irish. The favorite to win the Butkus Award, Te'o currently leads the team in tackles (69), with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries to his credit. Sophomore Stephon Tuitt (28 tackles, 8.5 sacks) has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, as has junior cornerback Bennett Jackson (30 tackles, four INTs).
Bob Stoops knows the Irish defenders to keep an eye on.
"Defensively, a great linebacker out there in No. 5, [Manti] Te'o, and a great d-end, No. 7, [Stephon] Tuitt, is a really special player who has got a bunch of sacks for them. Also No. 2 in the secondary [Bennett Jackson] has got I believe four interceptions so those are some of their players that stand out. Again, an excellent program, a team that's undefeated, so it'll be exciting. It'll be a big challenge, but our guys will be excited and hopefully go through the week here like we do each and every week in how we prepare."
The Sooners won't back down from challenging the strength of the Irish defense, as they have a balanced attack that moves the football well. Oklahoma is averaging a hefty 44.7 ppg this year, averaging 199.7 yards per game rushing and 288.5 yards passing.
Senior quarterback Landry Jones has performed well for the most part, completing 62.7 percent of his throws, for 1,644 yards and 12 TDs. His top target down the field is wideout Kenny Stills (38 receptions, 471 yards, four TDs).
The rushing game in Norman is spearheaded by tailback Damien Williams, who is averaging 7.5 yards per carry and has amassed 552 yards and seven TDs this year. The Sooners as a team have scored 20 rushing touchdowns and it will be interesting to see just how effective the ground game can be against the Irish.
Kelly is aware of just how dangerous Oklahoma's offense is.
"You know, if you look at their team, in particular, on the offensive side of the ball, quarterback driven (Landry) Jones is a very accomplished player. He has great weapons around him. The wide receiver crew is as deep as anybody that we've gone against. Certainly very good running game, physical."
Oklahoma has also had success on the defensive side of the football, holding foes to just 15.3 ppg. The Sooners have been particularly stingy against the pass, yielding a mere 164.3 ypg (ninth nationally).
The Sooners are paced by the safety tandem of Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris. Jefferson came into the season regarded as one of the nation's best and has looked the part, leading the team in tackles (48), with one interception. Harris is a distant second with 34 tackles, but leads the team with four interceptions.