A few thoughts on Saturday’s showdown between the Fighting Irish and Sooners, but first a handful of good links:
- Josh McCuistion and I talk about some of the keys to the game in the latest BH podcast.
- Our buddy Michael Felder analyzes the soft spots in the ND defense and how OU should attack them.
- The Subway Domer asks me a few questions about the game.
- Ty Hildenbrandt and Dan Rubenstein talk about the game somewhere in the latest Solid Verbal podcast.
- Jordan Esco questions the wisdom of playing a four-man defensive front to slow the Irish offense.
What I'll be watching today:
ND’s strategy against OU last year worked to near perfection in all facets of the game. Defensively, the Irish clearly wanted to force the Sooners to sustain long drives and execute play after play after play.
That started with controlling field position. OU began all 12 of its drives on its side of the field, and seven of 12 started at or inside the Sooners’ own 25. The Irish covered well in special teams, particularly on punts where they allowed zero returns. In sum, they didn’t concede any cheap yardage.
The Sooners have some dangerous return men in Jalen Saunders, Brennan Clay, Trey Franks and Roy Finch. Let’s see if they get a shot to make plays this time.
Putting Blake Bell on the move
In Michigan’s win over ND a few ago, quarterback Devin Gardner found some success on the ground via the zone read and rollouts. Otherwise, opponents really haven’t had much luck getting the run game going against ND. (The Sooners can relate, having pounded out a measly 2.4 yards per rush in ‘12.)
Bell might have the “running quarterback” rep, but Colin Kaepernick he’s not. He garnered that image in a package that asked him to sledgehammer defenses and fall forward in short yardage, but he’s running the show now. Bell mainly confined himself to the pocket in his only start against Tulsa, so we really don’t know how looks running the option/draw game. He probably moves as well as Gardner, but how OU utilizes that is a different matter.
Also, keep an eye out for a personnel package with Trevor Knight or Kendal Thompson at QB.
Three- or four-man front?
I was e-mailing with Ty Hildenbrandt about this matchup earlier this week and I commented to him that I would be interested to see how OU held up against ND’s power running game. His reply was that the power running game for the Irish “lacks both power and running.”
To his point, whereas the Irish had some thumpers a year ago in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, none of the runners in the current Irish stable of backs should concern this defense.
On the other hand, while OU has had success so far this season defending the spread with both a 3-3-5 and a lightweight 3-4 package, both of those schemes stand to get run over by a team with a solid downhill running game. Not a great one - just solid.
Presumably OU has a heavier personnel group with four down linemen in its back pocket for that very reason. A 4-3 with Chuka Ndule or one of the second-string tackles playing the 3 technique and Jordan Phillips on the nose might be an option.
Beeline to the linebackers
For all the “hurr, durr Alabama” and figmentary girlfriend stuff, Manti Te’o played his ass off all last year. This season, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is really missing an underrated part of the Heisman finalist’s skill set - pass coverage.
As Felder pointed out in this breakdown, this linebacking corps is struggling something fierce in coverage. If ND sticks with its standard 3-4 set, the Sooners should have some favorable matchups to exploit in the middle of the field and the flats.
Of course, the Irish may play more of a nickel, which will require a healthy dose of the run as punishment. (Given how OU ran the ball last year, ND might be willing to live with the consequences.)
When asked about the importance of this game this week, Bob Stoops has parroted the usual coachspeak about it just being another game. Listening to the players, however, you get the sense that no one on the team - from the coaches on down - really buys that.
As a double-digit underdog, Notre Dame came to Norman a year ago and took OU’s spot in the national pecking order. The Irish catapulted off the momentum from that win into an undefeated season, a berth in the national championship game and a general sense of acceptance that after a series of false starts, they really were “back” this time. In the other locker room, the loss served as a cold referendum on the state of play for OU: The Sooners had dropped down a peg from the national elites - a very good program, but no longer a great one.
OU needs this win to reverse, or at least halt, what has turned into a slide. This time around, the script has been flipped. ND is vulnerable, and the Sooners should be playing with a sense of urgency.