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OFD Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma

The Sooners are coming to South Bend this weekend to finish up a home & home series with the Irish.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma (-3.5) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET

Television: NBC

Series: 9-1-0 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview of this weekend's game against Oklahoma.

5 Factoids

  • 271.6

The yards per game that Oklahoma has rushed for this season, good for 16th nationally. Without a statue at quarterback the Sooners are much more committed to the run this season (151 attempts through 3 games in 2013 as opposed to 105 attempts last year) with over 10 carries per game coming from the quarterback position. Interestingly, Oklahoma has only scored 3 rushing touchdowns in 2013.

  • 10

The number of home games won in a row by Notre Dame. A win against Oklahoma would be the second longest streak for the Irish since Lou Holtz defeated 19 straight opponents in South Bend from September 19, 1987 to October 6, 1990.

  • 6

This will be the 11th meeting between Oklahoma and Notre Dame and the 6th to feature both teams ranked in the AP Poll.

  • 9-5

This is Bob Stoops' record on the road (with one neutral site game at Cowboys Stadium) in non-conference games since he took over in Norman in 1999. Filtering out the non-major conference teams and the record is merely 5-5. If you're inclined to not call Louisville, Cincinnati, and BYU major conference opponents the record then becomes 3-4. Overall, those losses came to Notre Dame (1999), UCLA (2005), Oregon (2006), BYU (2009), and Miami (2009).

  • 78

That is the number of times Oklahoma has scored at least 40 points in a game since the start of 1999. Over that same time period Notre Dame has scored at least 40 points only 26 times. The Sooners are 77-1 in such games with their only loss coming in the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State to end the 2006 season. The Fighting Irish are 24-2 in such games with losses to Michigan State in 2005 and Navy in 2007.

4 Players to Watch

  • WR Sterling Shepard

The true sophomore is coming off a strong debut season (45 receptions) and is currently leading the Sooners in receptions this fall with 11 catches and 146 yards. Eight of those grabs---a career high---came in their last game against Tulsa.

  • LB Corey Nelson

The playmaking senior linebacker is one of the few returning veterans in the Sooner defense. He comes into this weekend's game with 146 career tackles and currently leads the Sooners in tackles this season with 20. Nelson also leads Oklahoma in tackles for loss with 3.

  • CB Aaron Colvin

Colvin is a senior returning at corner where he was a 1st team All-Big 12 performer last season. He was a little banged up in the third quarter of the West Virginia game and missed the Tulsa game but should be ready to go this weekend.

  • QB Blake Bell

Bell was the backup quarterback for the past two seasons at Oklahoma where he was almost exclusively used as a short-yardage runner with 103 carries combined in 2011 and 2012. Coming into this fall Bell lost the starting competition to Trevor Knight but won the job back in OU's last game against Tulsa. Already this year Bell has more than double the pass attempts he had in 2011-12.

3 Concerns

  • Containing Oklahoma's Receivers

Although the Sooners lost their top two wideouts from 2012 in Kenny Stills and Justin Brown (combined for 155 receptions, 1,843 yards, and 16 touchdowns last year) they are still stacked with a deep and talented receiver corps. Shepard (mentioned above) leads a trio of high 4-star true sophomores along with Durron Neal and Trey Metoyer to form a crazy young and talented group.

Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders became eligible a few games into 2012 and is one of the team's top receivers coming into the weekend with 152 receptions, 2,493 yards, and 21 touchdowns in his career. The Sooners will also utilize as many as 4 more players in fifth-year senior Jaz Reynolds, JUCO senior transfer Lacoltan Bester, redshirt freshman Derrick Woods and true freshman Austin Bennett.

Compared to the wideouts Notre Dame has faced so far this season Oklahoma is bringing an All-Star cast of athletes. If Bell is capable of getting the ball into their hands on a consistent basis it could spell major trouble for the Irish secondary.

  • Maintaining Balance on Offense

Last year's game in Norman has been lauded as perhaps Brian Kelly's finest coaching performance at Notre Dame and a wonderfully balanced offense that night (215 rushing yards, 188 passing yards, 6.1 yards per play) was a big reason why many feel this way.

Oklahoma hasn't been known as a tough run defense in recent years and with the struggles of the Irish ground game in 2013 plus the loss of the mobile Everett Golson you have to wonder how balanced the Irish will be on Saturday. The loss of Golson alone could be huge as he ran for 64 yards at 5.8 per rush last year against the Sooners while gaining 5 first downs with his legs---including two on third down and another third down touchdown.

Without Golson and Cierre Wood's long touchdown run it wasn't like the Irish were chewing up huge yardage on the ground last year. Take that running away and Notre Dame gained 86 yards on 25 carries, plus a 5-yard gain on a reverse by Robby Toma.

That kind of production might get the job done in a grind-it-out effort against a stout Michigan State defense paired up with a bad offense but I doubt it leads to a win against Oklahoma.

  • Stopping Bell's Running on Short Yardage

Blake Bell is pretty athletic with a little bit of speed for a kid going 6-6, 252 but he's definitely not going to get the edge like Devin Gardner and pick up 15+ yards on a consistent basis. Where he can be effective is on second and third down where his legs can pick up crucial yards, and more importantly, first downs.

We don't have a ton of data to go on since Bell was used primarily as a red zone runner in the past when everyone and their mother knew he was running, but in his first career start against Tulsa two weeks ago Bell rushed 8 times and picked up three 1st downs. Of those 8 runs only his last rush came on first down, three came on third down and 4 others came on second down.

One of those goals in this game for Notre Dame has to be winning first down, don't let Bell pick up 4+ yards running on second down, and don't let him beat you with his legs on third down.

2 Sides of the Line

Oklahoma comes to South Bend with a fairly experienced offensive line. They did lose right guard and fifth-year senior Tyler Evans to an ACL injury back in March ending his season for the second straight year. The Sooners have also replaced senior Bronson Irwin (6-5, 314) who started all 13 games at right guard last year with redshirt sophomore Nila Kasitati (6-4, 312).

Elsewhere there is plenty of veterans on the line. At left tackle redshirt junior Tyrus Thompson (6-5, 320) has started all 3 games this season after making 5 starts last season. At left guard is redshirt junior Adam Shead (6-4, 316) who comes into Saturday with 21 career starts at his position. At center is fifth-year senior Gabe Ikard (6-3, 298) who will make his 41st career start this weekend, while redshirt junior Daryl Williams (6-6, 321) is back at right tackle after making 10 starts last season.

The Sooners utilize a 3-3-5 defense but are willing to switch to a 4-man front when necessary as they replace a lot of starters from last year's squad. You can expect a lot of 4-man fronts this weekend when they take on Notre Dame.

In the middle at nose guard is massive redshirt sophomore Jordan Phillips (6-6, 324) and he's flanked on each side by redshirt junior Geneo Grissom (6-4, 263) and sophomore Charles Tapper (6-4, 261). All three have started every game this season but their inexperience shows as they come into this game with a combined 51 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and just 1 sack for their careers.

Oklahoma will also rely on a trio of players for depth along the line all of whom are defensive tackle-types. Junior Quincy Russell (6-4, 315) is a JUCO transfer with 3 tackles, redshirt freshman Jordan Wade (6-4, 296) has 1 tackle, and redshirt junior Chuka Ndulue (6-3, 274) is actually a returning starter but was suspended for the opener and comes into Saturday with just 1 tackle.

1 Prediction

As I discussed with Larz in this past week's podcast I don't feel very good about Notre Dame's chances in this game. There hasn't been much to the Irish season so far that leads me to believe they are going to be able to beat a good team with the offensive weapons that Oklahoma possesses.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats for Week 5

F/+ 24 8
FEI 31 4
S&P 18 13
S&P Offense 10 27
S&P Defense 57 14
GE 65 13

That said, there are a few ways for the Irish to win this game.

1.) Oklahoma's inexperienced defense really isn't that good

2.) The Sooner running backs have terrible production

3.) Bell's passing ability is skittish and leads to turnovers

The first and third ways seem like the best way for Notre Dame to win. It would be nice to make Oklahoma one-dimensional on offense but their passing game (with Bell's athletic ability sprinkled in) may still be enough to get the job done.

The Sooners are really inexperienced on defense and this might be something the Irish can exploit. If you don't count defensive linemen Chuka Ndulue who is not starting this season Oklahoma only has 3 returning starters from last year: Linebacker Corey Nelson, corner Aaron Colvin, and safety Gabe Lynn.

Now, the defense has looked better than last year through 3 games (20th nationally in total defense right now) but it's been a very small sample size against three below average teams.

Bell looked pretty impressive against Tulsa a couple weeks ago (27 for 37, 413 yards, 4 TD) but I wonder how he'll react in his first road start against a much more formidable opponent? If I had to bet I think Bell will likely play pretty well but for someone with so few pass attempts in a career there may be hope that he lays an egg this Saturday.

At any rate, if Notre Dame is going to win some combination of these three things is going to have to occur.

I want to believe that the Irish are tougher and will smack Oklahoma in the mouth which will lead to a win. I want to believe that Oklahoma's 3-3-5 defense won't match up well with Notre Dame's ability to go with two tight-end sets and play more physical even without Everett Golson. I want to believe this will be the game that the Irish turn the corner, put a shaky start to the season behind them, and defeat a ranked team on the big stage.

I just don't believe it.

Notre Dame is coming off a tough, physical battle with a rival while Oklahoma has been resting comfortably for 2 weeks with nothing to do but prepare for their South Bend invasion. Last year, the Irish had the mobile quarterback able to make plays with his feet and it was Oklahoma with the statue signal-caller. This year, the situations are reversed and that's not a good sign in the college game.

Last week I was confident in a Notre Dame win over Michigan State but I'll be very surprised if the Irish come out on top this weekend. The difference this year will be that Oklahoma's running game will be much more potent than it was last year and Notre Dame's is going to take a step back. I doubt we see such a huge discrepancy in rushing like last year's game but with Bell, a nice stable of backs, and a veteran offensive line I think OU wins the rushing battle by 50 yards or so and it makes a big difference.

Notre Dame 20

Oklahoma 30