South Bend, IN – A Top 25 showdown is on tap in South Bend this weekend, as the 14th-ranked Oklahoma Sooners come calling on the 22nd- ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Bob Stoops' Sooners are seeking their 10th 4-0 start under his watchful eye after opening the season with wins over ULM (34-0), West Virginia (16-7) and most recently, Tulsa (51-20). Oklahoma had last weekend off, giving it extra time to prepare for the Irish, who invaded Norman last year and embarrassed the Sooners 30-13, en route to a perfect regular season.
Brian Kelly's Irish are in a different position this time around, as a perfect season has already been dashed with a week two loss at Michigan (41-30). Notre Dame has bounced back however, moving to 3-1 on the year with back-to-back hard-earned victories over Purdue (31-24) and Michigan State (17-13).
Stoops recognizes the Irish are a different squad from last year, but not in every area.
"Their schemes are all the same," Stoops said. "They've got good athletes and are well disciplined in everything that they do. So I see them very similar, you know watching them, as they were a year ago."
With last year's road win, Notre Dame has now won eight of the nine total meetings between these two teams
Oklahoma has returned to a balanced attack on the offensive side of the football. The team is generating just under 500 yards per game, gaining large chunks of real estate on the ground (271.7 ypg) and enough through the air (218.7 ypg) to keep opposing defenses honest. Finishing drives in the end zone has proved to be a little more difficult however, as OU is 15-of-17 in red zone opportunities, with only nine resulting in touchdowns.
Both redshirt freshman Trevor Knight (205 yards passing, four TDs) and redshirt junior Blake Bell (451 yards passing, four TDs) have seen time under center, thanks to an injury to Knight against West Virginia. Bell was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week against Tulsa, throwing for 413 yards and four TDs. Knight is listed as questionable for this game. Regardless of who is under center, Sterling Shepard (11 catches, 146 yards, two TDs) and Jalen Saunders (10 catches, 137 yards, three TDs) are the top aerial targets.
The ground game has its own potent one-two punch in the form of Brennan Clay (5.8 ypc, 87.3 ypg, two TDs) and Damien Williams (4.4 ypc, 80.5 ypg), with Knight (7.2 ypc, 72.5 ypg) adding another dimension to the run game from under center.
Early returns would suggest that Oklahoma has shored up some of its defensive problems from a year ago. The team currently ranked fourth in the country in scoring defense, yielding a mere 9.0 ppg. The Sooners are giving up just 291.3 yards of total offense per game, including holding foes to just 190.7 yards passing. In addition, opponents have converted just 27 percent of the time on third down and have reached the red zone a mere six times through two games, scoring just two touchdowns.
Leading the charge is linebacker Corey Nelson, who has posted a team-high 20 tackles, with 3.0 TFL and one sack. Safety Gabe Lynn has been the most opportunistic defender for Oklahoma. He has just five tackles in the first three games, but is responsible for two interceptions and one fumble recovery.
The offensive numbers for Notre Dame aren't exactly eye-popping, numbers that certainly took a hit with a sub par performance against one of the nation's best defensive units last week in Michigan State. Still, when all was said and done, veteran quarterback Tommy Rees led the Irish to victory.
Last season it was a strong ground game that fueled the Irish on offense, but this year it is a passing attack led by Rees that accounts for 280.0 yards per game. The senior has completed 56 percent of his passes, for 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns thus far. His top two targets have been TJ Jones (21 catches, 304 yards, two TDs) and DaVaris Daniels (20 catches, 305 yards, four TDs).
The rushing attack has struggled at times and is currently netting a modest 114.2 yards per game. However, tailbacks Cam McDaniel (3.8 ypc), Amir Carlisle (4.8 ypc) and George Atkinson III (5.0 ypc) give the team a deep backfield.
The Notre Dame defense was the driving force behind last year's run to the BCS National Championship Game. Part of the success came from a unit that forced turnovers and held opponents out of the end zone. This year, the Irish have forced just five turnovers and recorded just four sacks in the first four games.
Although All-American Manti Te'o is no longer on the team, there is plenty of star power throughout. All-American end Stephon Tuitt (10 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and nose tackle Louis Nix III (14 tackles) headline the play up front. Jarrett Grace (team-high 28 tackles), Dan Fox (27 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and Carlo Calabrese (26 tackles, 4.0 TFL) make up an active linebacking corps, while All-American candidate Bennett Jackson (24 tackles, one interception) and Matthias Farley (15 tackles, one interception) are the players to watch in the secondary.
Kelly knows the key to this game is his defense's ability to stop the big play.
"We have to minimize the big chunk plays, and that's one of our goals each and every week: Minimizing those big chunk plays. We were able to do that last year. We're going to have to do it this year if we want to win the football games."