Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma preview: Perfect timing, Landry Jones and Manti Te'o

Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

Oklahoma and Notre Dame have seen some twists and turns in the five years since they agreed to a 2012-13 home-and-home series. But both teams have begun to peak in advance of this suddenly spectacular showdown.

Timing is everything. When two major teams agree to play a home-and-home series against each other, it is usually arranged many, many years out. The storylines we imagine when the programs agree to play tend not to unfold the same way when it is actually time to play the games.

Two days ago, Oregon and Ohio State agreed to play a home-and-home in 2020 and 2021. It seems exciting -- Chip Kelly versus Urban Meyer! -- but the odds of either of those coaches being at their respective schools in eight years, much less both, are minimal. In the end, sometimes these series end up taking on more meaning when the games roll around (in 1998, Texas and Ohio State agreed to play in 2005 and 2006; what was sure to be a big series became enormous, making a severe impact on the national title race each year). Other times, they don't.

In July 2007, Notre Dame and Oklahoma agreed to a home-and-home in 2012 and 2013, with the first game taking place in Norman. At the time, that was a really big deal -- the teams had only played once since 1968 and have forever shared a history thanks to Notre Dame's historic upset win in Norman in 1957, which ended Oklahoma's historic 47-game winning streak. Plus, Oklahoma was coming off of a 2006 Big 12 title (the Sooners' fourth in seven seasons) and was a preseason Top 10 in 2007 (with some redshirt freshman named Sam Bradford taking over the quarterbacking duties), and Notre Dame was experiencing an instant resurgence under Charlie Weis, having gone 19-6 in his first two seasons and brought in a series of blue-chippers to maintain the momentum.


Oklahoma, Notre Dame bloggers trade questions || ND-OU preview podcast

Stoops versus Weis! Two historic (and present) national powers! It was exciting. And then Notre Dame completely fell apart under Weis, who was dumped just three years later.

This will always be a fun helmet game (i.e. a game between two teams with historically famous helmets), but a 2007-08 series would have resulted in two Oklahoma blowouts. A 2011 game would have pitted two frustrating underachievers. But now? In late-October 2012, with both Notre Dame (No. 5 and undefeated) and Oklahoma (No. 8 and perhaps the hottest team in the country not named Alabama) in the BCS Top 10? This is a fantastic, exciting game with serious national implications.

Sometimes you get lucky, and we're all lucky that this game is taking place … and a week after an actual Stoops vs. Weis matchup, no less.

We've even gotten a bit lucky with in-season timing. Even a month ago, this matchup would not have been exciting. Oklahoma was coming off of an iffy win over UTEP and a home loss to Kansas State that saw them lose two costly fumbles and fail to stop the Wildcats when they needed to most. Heading into October, the Sooners were ranked 17th, as much a courtesy as anything else. Notre Dame, meanwhile, was winning games in odd fashion. The Irish were 4-0, with quarterback Tommy Rees having twice come off of the bench to serve as starter Everett Golson's closer, securing tight wins over Purdue and Michigan. The Irish were No. 9 in the country by that point, but they did not necessarily seem trustworthy.

Now, the Irish offense is still shaky, but the defense has not allowed more than 17 points in a game, and following wins over Miami (41-3), Stanford (in overtime) and BYU (17-14), Brian Kelly's squad has inserted itself into the national title discussion. And Oklahoma has responded to the Kansas State loss by beating Texas Tech (No. 14 in the BCS rankings), Texas (No. 23) and Charlie Weis' Kansas Jayhawks by an average score of 52-16.

Notre Dame will not be cowed by Oklahoma's stellar defense

At first glance, Notre Dame's offensive stats are rather lackluster. The Irish rank 38th in rushing yards per game and 77th in passing efficiency, and while the defense has been outstanding, the offense has scored more than 20 points in a game just twice (against Navy and Miami, two pretty bad defenses).

But opponent adjustments are key here. Thus far, Notre Dame has faced four Top 25 defenses (according to F/+): No. 4 Michigan State, No. 5 Stanford, No. 15 BYU and No. 25 Michigan. Taking that into account, Notre Dame's output certainly isn't elite, but it isn't terrible. Against defenses ranked worse than 25th (No. 36 Purdue, No. 69 Navy, No. 78 Miami), the Irish are averaging 37 points and 484 yards per game. Of course, this doesn't really apply on Saturday: in defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' first year back in Norman, OU ranks second in the country in Def. F/+. So one probably shouldn't expect more than 20 points from the Irish.

The Notre Dame rushing attack is multi-faceted and strong, with George Atkinson III and Cierre Wood bringing serious explosiveness to the table (combined: 6.8 yards per carry), Theo Riddick running relatively well between the tackles (4.7 per carry), and Golson capable of tucking and running with reasonable success (4.6 yards per carry in about five totes per game). Golson, a redshirt freshman, has not proven to have full control of the playbook just yet (he is completing 59 percent of his passes with just four touchdowns and three interceptions), but as long as Notre Dame can stay on schedule, good things happen. The Irish rank second in the country on standard downs, 17th on passing downs.

All told, the Irish passing game is one of attempted efficiency and control. Sixty percent of the passes go to T.J. Jones, tight end Tyler Eifert and Riddick, and they average a decent 7.3 yards per target. On passing downs, it's all Eifert and Riddick, safety options who have not been incredibly impressive on such downs (16-for-30 for 187 yards). At Cincinnati, Brian Kelly showed that he will be relatively aggressive in the passing game at times if he trusts his cast of characters. He really doesn't this year, but with the defense he's got in his back pocket, he doesn't have to take too many chances.

But if he has to rely on the passing game in Norman, bad things will probably happen. Oklahoma might have the best pass defense in the country that doesn't reside in Tuscaloosa. The Sooners needed a shot in the arm in this regard, and Mike Stoops has evidently given it to them. Opponents are completing just 52 percent of their passes and averaging 4.7 yards per pass attempt, including sacks. The Sooners don't do anything special, really (and honestly, they have probably been a little lucky in intercepting 35 percent of their overall passes defensed, considering the national average is around 20 percent); they just cover well and tackle well. Aaron Colvin has turned into one of the surest coverage guys in the game, with two picks and six passes broken up to go with 20 tackles, and with Colvin and Damontre Hurst on the outside, the potent safety combination of Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris has been given free reign to make plays, both near the line of scrimmage (three tackles for loss) and far away (five interceptions, three passes broken up). The pass rush is not spectacular (56th in Adj. Sack Rate), but thus far it hasn't had to be.

This probably won't be the game where Notre Dame's offense has a statement performance. if the Irish are to win, it will be by shutting down the Oklahoma offense. Their own offense likely won't produce more than about three scores.

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Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Landry, meet Manti; Manti, Landry

In the last three games, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones has found his mojo. Against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas, the senior completed 65 of 105 passes for 871 yards and seven touchdowns, with just one interception and two sacks. Average yards per pass attempt, including sacks: 7.9.

But more importantly, he has regained control of passing downs. As I have written before, no offense trusts its quarterback to make plays on passing downs more than Oklahoma's, and Jones has been both a beneficiary and victim of the Sooners' "balance on standard downs, all passing on passing downs" approach. After throwing mostly to Kenny Stills on every third down, Jones has begun to spread the love, and the Sooners have begun to explode offensively. Stills is still the go-to guy (he sees almost 30 percent of Jones' passing downs passes and averages 10.7 yards per target on such throws), but Penn State transfer Justin Brown and freshman Sterling Shepard have begun to show some explosiveness. The two are averaging 9.0 yards per target on passing downs. Combine that with healthy doses of Stills, Brown, Shepard, freshman Trey Metoyer, new speedster Jalen Saunders and big man Trey Millard on standard downs, and you've got a drastically improving Oklahoma passing game.

Oklahoma's passing game will create an absolutely fascinating matchup with the Notre Dame pass defense. Few teams rush the passer better than the Irish, who have brought quarterbacks down 19 times in 242 pass attempts thus far (7.8 percent) and hurried them another 33 times. Big sophomore end Stephon Tuitt is one of the nation's best pass rushers; he has 8.5 sacks and eight hurries. Tuitt and others like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Prince Shembo and Sheldon Day (combined: six sacks and 14 hurries) generate enough pressure that, after a while, you begin to lose track of star linebacker Manti Te'o.

And then you pay. Te'o is a jack-of-all-trades and perhaps the best linebacker in the country. He attacks the line (2.5 tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries), and he is a master in pass coverage (four interceptions, three passes broken up). He is a hazard on any pass near the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame headed into the season with a drastically unproven secondary. Three 2011 starters were gone, and safety Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season in September. That left senior safety Zeke Motta, junior corner Bennett Jackson (14.5 tackles in 2011) and all sorts of youth, like freshman KeiVarae Russell, who has started every game at cornerback thus far. The pass rush has helped (seventh in Adj. Sack Rate), but the secondary has more than held its own. Against a Miami offense that loves the deep passing game, Notre Dame held Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris to only two completions in nine passes greater than 15 yards in length. The Sooners will perhaps offer the toughest, deepest test of the Notre Dame secondary, but there's nothing saying the Irish won't be up for the task.

That means, then, that Oklahoma's running game might make the difference between an ultra-tight game and a reasonably comfortable Oklahoma win. And good luck figuring out who will win that matchup.

Notre Dame is a bit inefficient against the run, but the Irish are great at preventing big plays. Oklahoma's Damien Williams, meanwhile, is relatively inefficient but a master of the big play. Williams has already played three different seasons, basically, in 2012. The junior college transfer rushed 20 times for 259 yards and five touchdowns against lesser (to say the least) UTEP and Florida A&M defenses and was turned into a non-factor on the ground versus Kansas State and Texas Tech (24 carries, 82 yards). Then he exploded against Texas (22 carries for 167 yards), setting the tone with an early, perfect, 95-yard sprint versus the Longhorns. (He was basically given the week off against Kansas, carrying just eight times for 44 yards.) If Williams gets rolling, Oklahoma is unstoppable. But as was proven against Kansas State and Texas Tech, it isn't a given that he will get rolling.

Honestly, this is a game Oklahoma should win rather comfortably. The Sooners seemingly have much more to offer offensively than Notre Dame does, at least in terms of upside, and if they can score a couple of times early in front of what should be an outstanding, buzzing Owen Field crowd, the Irish will struggle to stay close. But the Irish are built to stay close, tighten the clamps defensively, and pull out a close win. it's what they have done all year, and they probably won't be intimidated by the atmosphere. Turnovers and first-quarter play will be enormous in this one.

Based on the makeup and tendencies of these teams, I expect either a comfortable OU win or a tight Notre Dame win. For now, give me the former. Oklahoma 28, Notre Dame 10.

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