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At the beginning of the season, it was difficult to imagine that the October 27th matchup between the Sooners and the Irish would be the headline game of the weekend. Sure, it is a matchup of two of the most storied College Football teams in the country. Sure, Oklahoma started out in the top-5 of the AP and Coaches Polls. But it is the upstart Irish which have elevated this game to National prominence and given ESPN Game Day the motivation (excuse?) to bring their show to Norman, OK for the seventh time next Saturday. On a day that will see three games featuring teams ranked in the top-11 of the BCS standings, the Sooners vs. the Irish is the most delicious of the matchups. And all the attention is despite the fact that neither team is likely to win any kind of Championship this season.
Alabama and Mississippi square off (#1 vs. #11) as the final undefeated teams in the SEC West with the winner having the inside track to represent the Western Division in the SEC Championship game with a chance to stamp their ticket to the BCS Title game. Meanwhile Georgia and Florida meet (#2 and #10) in Jacksonville for their annual Cocktail Party with the winner earning the inside track in the East with Conference and National Title chances awaiting either team. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has to wait for Alabama, Oregon, and/or Kansas St. to falter to clear their path to the National Title; the Irish do not play in a Conference and thus have no Conference title to play for. Oklahoma could conceivably rise to #1 or #2 in the country, albeit with a lot of needed help, but has to wait for Kansas St. to lose 2 of their last 5 games in order to have a chance to win their own Conference Title. Despite this, Oklahoma hosting Notre Dame (#5 vs. #8) stands as the premier game of the weekend.
Is there a better matchup this weekend? History tells us no. Oklahoma and Notre Dame are ranked #8 and #3, respectively, in all-time wins. When Notre Dame visits Oklahoma, there will be a combined 19 National Champions represented in the matchup. Of those National Championships, the Irish claim 12 and the Sooners claim 7. Despite this combined excellence, there is a huge disparity in the head-to-head series of the teams. Notre Dame holds the all-time lead in the series with 8 victories to 1. Oklahoma’s lone victory against Notre Dame came in 1956, a 45-0 win in the midst of the Sooners’ historic 47-game winning streak under Bud Wilkinson when seemingly nobody could score on, let alone beat Oklahoma. The Irish would eventually stop “the streak“, which still stands as the longest winning streak in Division I College football, 7-0 in 1957. This game is even personal to Bob Stoops, as the Irish handed him his first loss as a Head Football Coach in 1999, 34-30.
The Irish come into Norman still trying to identify their starting quarterback. Irish Head Coach Brian Kelly seems to be confident that Everett Golson is the quarterback of the future and the present, although he sat out last week vs. BYU with a concussion. Tommy Rees, the starter before a suspension in the offseason opened the door of opportunity for Golson, guided the Irish to a victory over BYU in his absence and has been called upon in three games (Purdue, Michigan, and Stanford) to lead the team to victory late. Kelly refers to Rees as his closer and remains adamant that Golson gives them the best chance for victory, despite only completing 58% of his passes on the season with a 4:3 TD to INT ratio and fumbling the ball away three times. Redshirt freshman quarterbacks have a tough time leading their teams to victory in Norman and Golson seems to be a typical RS FR quarterback, admitting to getting rattled under the pressure against Michigan at home.
Everett Golson was able to lead the Irish to a road victory against Michigan St. earlier in the year which, at the time, was an impressive victory over a top-10 opponent on the road. The Spartans have since lost 3 out of their last 4 games to take a shine off of that victory by the Golson-led Irish. Although Golson completed less than half his passes in East Lansing (14-32), he avoided mistakes while the Irish defense frustrated the MSU offense all day. This is the current definition of Irish football under Brian Kelly. Limit mistakes and force and capitalize on mistakes of your opponent. Eventually Notre Dame will open up their offense, but don’t expect it while being led by a RS FR quarterback. This is a team that will look to grind it out behind a talented and large offensive line.
Games for the Irish against Navy and Miami were the exceptions this year as the Irish were able to score 50 and 41, respectively. Outside of that, the Irish have scored 20,20,13,20,17; meanwhile, Irish opponents have scored 17,3,6,13,14. What does that tell us? Two things: The Irish aren’t going to get involved in a shootout; and if you can score more than 20 points, you have a pretty good chance of winning against Notre Dame.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/LM Otero
In come the Oklahoma Sooners with an offense ranked fifth in the nation in scoring at 44.67 points per game. Their lowest output this year was 19 points in a loss to 3rd ranked Kansas St. When Oklahoma has scored more than 20 points this season, they are 5-0. That is helped by a resurgent defense under returning Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops which has limited teams to 15.33 points per game this year, good for 12th in the Nation. The Sooners have allowed three teams to score 20 points on the season with a high of 24 in the loss to Kansas St. When the Sooners have allowed 21 or fewer points on the season, they are 5-0.
The Irish and Sooner defenses are both ranked in the top-15 in total defense and in the top-12 in scoring defense with the Irish holding edges in both statistical categories. The major difference here is the unit that is struggling for the Sooners, run defense, matches up with the offensive strength of the Irish. Notre Dame’s running game is powered by rugged Theo Riddick and talented Cierre Wood behind a talented and experienced offensive line. Oklahoma’s defensive line, a major question mark coming into the season due to the graduation of NFL-level talent, has actually seen vast improvement over the last 3 weeks. Despite that, the unit continues to allow over 138 yards per game which is good for the 46th ranked rushing defense. Oklahoma offensively strikes through the air with the 26th ranked passing offense matching up against the 14th ranked passing defense in Notre Dame. These stats would seem to swing the pace and outcome of the game into the favor of Notre Dame.
A closer look at the schedules of these teams helps one understand these stats. Miami (FL) has the best passing offense, statistically, which the Irish have faced all season ranking 23rd (3 spots ahead of Oklahoma). No other team that Notre Dame has faced has a passing offense ranked in the top-60. Miami also has the highest ranked total offense that has faced off with the Irish this year, checking in at 51 in the country. Oklahoma, meanwhile comes into the game with the 17th ranked offense averaging a full 72 yards per game more on offense than the Hurricanes. The difference, of course, is that Oklahoma averages nearly 200 yards rushing per game with their 34th ranked rushing offense and Miami, ranked 92nd, averages only 127 yards per game. A one-dimensional Miami team, in comparison, lost badly to the Irish 41-3 in Chicago 3 weeks ago. Oklahoma will need to balance their attack against the Irish in order to be effective through the air against Notre Dame, something that Miami wasn’t able to do.
The closest comparative opponent Oklahoma has to Notre Dame is Kansas St. The Wildcats live and die through their running game and so far they are surviving well behind the 14th ranked rushing offense that is averaging over 230 yards per game. That is 40 yards more than the 38th ranked Irish rushing offense. The Kansas St. passing game has been a bit more successful on the season than Notre Dame allowing their total offense to gain an average of almost 435 yards per game, good for 42nd in the country. That is a full 50 yards more than Notre Dame’s 74th ranked offense. Most of that difference is likely attributable to the experience of 5th year senior Colin Klein for Kansas St. versus the rookie Everett Golson for the Irish; although, the defenses that Notre Dame has faced have certainly offered more resistance than the Wildcats opponents to this point. A study of the Wildcats gives us a pretty good idea of Brian Kelly’s vision for Notre Dame and should leave Irish fans smiling. They play smart football designed around a good run game, limit mistakes, and take advantage of opponent mistakes.
In hidden statistics, Oklahoma has a huge advantage, statistically in special teams. Oklahoma is ranked 3rd nationally in kickoff return yards, boosted by Roy Finch’s record setting kickoff return last Saturday against Kansas. That unit will face off against the 92nd ranked kickoff return defense of the Irish. On the flip side, the Irish have been pedestrian returning kickoffs this year, averaging 93rd in return yardage in the country; meanwhile, Oklahoma ranks 27th defending kickoff returns. Notre Dame does have a slight advantage in Net Punting Yards (39.17 to 36.92), as the Sooners have allowed over 10 yards per punt return on average. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, they are ranked in the bottom 10 in the NCAA in punt return yards this season. This would only be a stat in favor of the Irish if they had the athletes to take advantage of it. Oklahoma, on the flip side, has averaged 17.88 yards per punt return behind talented Penn St. transfer, Justin Brown. Both teams have sophomore place kickers who have been adequate this season so far. Brindza for Notre Dame has had more opportunities, connecting on 11 of 15 field goals, but Hunnicut has been more accurate for Oklahoma, 8 of 9.
A more hidden statistic would be the venue for the game in Norman, OK. Despite two Conference losses in the past two seasons for Oklahoma, they have been nearly unbeatable at home under Stoops. That is only truer as the stakes go up at home. Oklahoma hasn’t lost a home game covered by a visit from College Game Day since 1995 against Colorado (5-1 all-time). Sitting in the crowd at Memorial Stadium in Norman, OK last Saturday, the largest ovation came when the stadium announcer gave the final score of the Notre Dame/BYU game. Oklahoma fans knew that the Irish were struggling against BYU and they understood what a victory by the Irish would mean for the following Saturday in Norman. Even Brian Kelly understands that the fans in Norman are smart fans and are a big part of the Sooners success over the years. Oklahoma teams under Stoops feed off the energy of the crowd and they have been much more susceptible at home against teams that came in a little under the radar. Even Kansas St., currently ranked #3 in the country, came in a bit under the radar as the 15th ranked team. That has been the exception to the rule for the Stoops led Sooners, but the game was very representative of the way Kansas St. has found its success under Coach Snyder. If Oklahoma makes the same mistakes against Notre Dame as it did against Kansas St. in their third game of the season, the Irish will likely walk out of Norman with a victory.