Published November 20, 2014
Oklahoma's first marquee game of the season on Owen Field ended up being a flop.
One month later, there's an opportunity for the eighth-ranked Sooners (5-1) to climb onto the fringes of the national championship debate if they can find a way to beat No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday night.
The Sooners' results in big-time games have been mixed of late. They've been dominant in the Red River Rivalry against Texas but lost to Missouri two years ago when they were the No. 1 team in the BCS standings and dropped Top 25 showdowns against Baylor and Oklahoma State last season.
After winning their past three games against Big 12 competition by a combined margin of 156-48, the expectations are high once again — maybe even more so than over the past two seasons, when various rankings had them pegged as the No. 1 team in the country.
"I think maybe as a unit we're playing better. I think we have more confidence right now going into games for sure than I think there's ever been around this place, just knowing what we can do and what we're capable of," quarterback Landry Jones said Monday.
The starting defense has allowed only one touchdown over the past three games, and not a single point over the past two weeks. The offense has seemingly found a new gear after struggling through a three-turnover outing in the 24-19 loss to Kansas State.
"That's our goal every week is keep getting better," center Gabe Ikard said. "We've been improving in practice every week since that K-State loss and just been building in a really positive way. ... We're not peaking but we're definitely on an upslope.
"We just can't be satisfied with the way we've played and we're facing the biggest challenge of the year so far, when it comes to their defense."
Led by standout linebacker Manti Te'o, the Fighting Irish (7-0) have been stingier than anyone in the country except defending champion Alabama this season. That has the attention of Jones and the rest of the Oklahoma offense.
Jones said he believes his improvement in recent weeks is due to trusting his new set of receivers more, allowing him to go through his normal progressions instead of trying to make plays that aren't there.
"I've been playing a lot better. Just obviously after games like Texas Tech, Texas and last week against Kansas, you're going to have higher confidence," Jones said. "And I think everybody on this team is going to have higher confidence just the way that we've been playing."
The Sooners will get a boost, too, from the return of suspended defensive tackle Stacy McGee, who started three games last season.
McGee had been held out for the first six games of this season, but coach Bob Stoops said Monday he's allowed to play against Notre Dame. Stoops said McGee has been practicing with the scout team during his suspension and there's no reason he wouldn't be ready to play Saturday night.
"He's been going against a better offensive line than if ... he's going against the scout team every day," Stoops said.
Stoops said his confidence in his team was never shaken after the loss to Kansas State, because he understood how good the Wildcats — now up to No. 4 — could be and that his team could have won if not for the critical turnovers.
"What people failed to realize is we played a heck of a game against them the entire time and we just had two major mistakes that you can't overcome when you're playing another really good football team. ... As far as being physical and tough and those kind of things, we were toe-to-toe with them the entire day," Stoops said.
Coming up short on the big stage the first time has driven the Sooners to keep getting better and avoid another loss, which would wipe away their remaining championship hopes.
"It still kind of hurts. You don't want to ever let a game slip away from you," Jones said. "You don't want to ever lose a game that early in the season. Yes, Kansas State is a good team for sure. No doubt about that. But it still hurts.
"You think about it and you can go 'What if?' all you want but that game is behind us now. Yes, it still does hurt but we're going to move on from it and we're playing ball now."