Notre Dame will square off with the Oklahoma Sooners for the first time since 1999 while making their first trip to Norman since 1966. With the Sooners on tap this weekend, we have exchanged scouting reports with the Oklahoma blog Crimson and Cream Machine. They were kind enough to provide us with a complete breakdown of the Sooners.
It is no secret that Landry Jones was returning for his super senior year as a fourth year starter in this Oklahoma offense. Many still think of Jones as lacking the natural leadership qualities his successor, Blake Bell, has. However, he does have the experience but has been known to get happy feet when the pressure gets to him. More recently, Jones has been poised and collected in the pocket while the offensive line has provided solid protection for him. He is aware of where the pocket is and where it is moving to allowing him to step up to avoid the angle of a defender to dump the ball off to the hot route or check down. While Jones is not putting up the Heisman type numbers many expected out of him this season, he is throwing for 274.8 yards a game with a 62.7 completion rate in one of the more balanced offenses in the nation. He currently has 12 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and remains Oklahoma’s best chance for victory.
The other side of this two headed monster is Blake Bell. The Oklahoma coaching staff borrowed an idea from Bill Snyder at Kansas St. to implement a big running quarterback formation which has affectionately become known as the “Belldozer.” Simply put, this is a puzzle of numbers. A pulling lineman leads the way as fullbacks Aaron Ripkowski and Trey Millard lead the way to open up a crease. Everyone in the stadium knows what is about to take place but not many have found the solution to this riddle. On third and short, fourth and short, and in the redzone this is the formation Oklahoma will rely on. It is much of the reason the Sooners are 32-for-33 on scoring trips into the redzone for a 96.97% success rate. The only time OU failed to score in the redzone was ironically in the Belldozer Formation as Bell forgot to handle the snap before he dozed his way toward the line of scrimmage. With no backs in the backfield, a fumble is fatal from this tactic as Bell is the only offensive man conscious of what just took place.
Oklahoma was left with much to question at the postion heading into the season. Several receivers were suspended making Kenny Stills the only returning player to record a reception in a Sooner jersey. But, Stills was moving from the outside to the slot to pick up the slack of all-time great Ryan Broyles. There was much talk about the incoming talent but it was unproven and young with the likes of true freshmen Trey Metoyer, Sterling Shepard, and Durron Neal. Throughout the first several games, it became apparent that something was awry between the quarterback and the receivers. However, a few transfers changed the game as Justin Brown came from Penn St. and was immediately eligible to play. Jalen Saunders recently received a waiver after the university appealed the original ruling and is now available. Stills remains the go to guy for Landry Jones with 38 receptions but Brown (23 receptions) as well as Shepard (19 receptions) and Saunders (5 catches for 88 yards, 17.6 avg) have proven they are great talents as well. Often times, the Sooners will use a double slot set and have never shied away from using the running backs as receivers.
The Sooners are not big on using tightends in the offense outside of blocking since Jermaine Gresham left the university. Sure Brannon Green has a touchdown reception but there has been little involvement since. What Oklahoma does have going for them is fullback Trey Millard who is versatile enough to play almost any position on the field. He has the hands and blocking ability to lineup as a tightend but also has the speed and agility to lineup as a tailback. Millard is a do-it-all type player that allows the Sooners to run the dreaded hurry-up offense. Because of his versatility, Oklahoma can simply shift positions instead of changing personnel.
The stable of runningbacks that Oklahoma possesses are due to the success of none other than Adrian Peterson. Year after year, the Sooners reload at the postion and often have a hard time getting all the talent in the backfield enough snaps. Dominique Whaley quickly rose to stardom last season as a walk-on but has been overshadowed by JUCO transfer Damien Williams who quickly emerged as the premier back on this team. On 10 attempts, Williams gain over 100 yards against UTEP. He would repeat the feat on the same number of attempts the following week, this time going for 156 yards and four touchdowns. This is a kid who has the ability to cut upfield in a hurry along with the power and speed to run with anyone in the nation.
Part of the recent success of the Oklahoma offense has been found in the fact that they are attempting to establish the run early and often. This is where they are beginning to find their identity.
From cancer diagnosis to injury leading a player to walk away from the game, the offensive line was left in a jumbled mess. While the players filling the roles were great players as individuals, this is a unit that thrives upon cohesion and Oklahoma clearly lacked that quality as it gave up multiple sacks to teams who had no business getting in the backfield. Lately, this has been a group that has given Landry Jones ample time in the pocket to find a receiver and make an accurate throw. As a group, they have also done a solid job of opening things up for the runningbacks to make a play. Pass protection is a priority across all level of football and without it, things can go downhill in a hurry.
This is a unit that took a hit early on. DT Stacy McGee was indefinitely suspended while another DT in Casey Walker was on hiatus due to personal issues. This forced Oklahoma to slide DE David King over while allowing him to create mismatches inside for his speed and outside for his size. In this situation, Oklahoma lacked the ability to get pressure on the opposing QB consistently. Depth was already a concern but it took another hit when the Sooners lost defensive lineman Nila Kasitati to a torn ACL. Now, McGee has been reinstated and Walker rejoined the team several weeks ago giving the Sooners an experienced rotation in the middle including Jamarkus McFarland. King has moved back to his natural position while Chuka Ndulue sits opposite him. As this group has gelled together, they have found themselves being far more productive in the pass rush, getting a good push in the middle while collecting 12 sacks to go along with 17 QB hurries and one interception. The defensive line is quickly emerging as one of the best in the Big XII.
Tom Wort was pegged as the leader and anchor of the front seven with the departure of Travis Lewis. However, Mike Stoops was back and he brought with him LB coach Tim Kish. With the new coaches came a new schematic specifically for the linebackers. Instead of flowing to the ball while running sideline to sideline, the LBs were now being asked to be gap aware. This means that they are to know their gap assignment and stick to it during the development of the play. However, if a receiver were to come across the middle, it would mean Wort still needs to drop into coverage, a task he has never been up for. While the coaches feel like Wort as well as Corey Nelson have done a solid job this season, the fans wanted more involvement from them. Lately the OU coaching staff has employed blitz packages that were lacking during the first three games of the season. Much of the blitzing comes from the LBs and more specifically Frank Shannon due to his speed and tenacity to get into the backfield.
Collectively, the front seven have given up 139.83 yards per game on the ground. This is a major improvement from the 200+ yards that UTEP as well as Kansas St. posted on this group.
The secondary has had the pieces to be a great unit yet lacked the correct positions for each player to succeed to achieve this goal. This first thing returning defensive coordinator Stoops did was recognize this and begin working to solve the puzzle. Standout Tony Jefferson was moved from nickelback to free safety while Javon Harris was moved from free safety to strong safety. Aaron Colvin in turn was moved from safety back to cornerback and Demontre Hurst held down his starting role as the other corner. To fill the now vacant nickelback position, Gabe Lynn had been moved from cornerback. Now that the game was reset, it was time to see the production on the field. This has been the strong point of the defense from day one giving up 164.3 yards per game through the air. In a pass happy conference, those are great numbers that land the Sooners in the top ten against the air raid nationally. Not only has this group been a lock down unit to the tune of a 51.9% completion rate for opposing quarterbacks, the safeties also lead the team in tackles, Jefferson with 48 and Harris with 34. That is a productive group to say the least.
However, the major thing lacking from the group was turnovers which start upfront with the line. As the line has progressed and developed, the secondary has reaped the benefits. Through the first three games, Oklahoma came up with a single turnover. In the past three games, the Sooners have created a total of seven interceptions and one fumble recovery returned for 45 yards.
Justin Brown has proven that he can be something special. He is averaging 19 yards per return and is the x-factor in any game when given the change to return a punt. Last week, Brown wowed fans as he returned a punt 90 yards to the house against Kansas. A shifty Roy Finch duplicated the feat in the same game, this time on a kickoff return as he went 100 yards for the score. Finch is averaging 35.67 yards per return and Brennan Clay averages 29.68 opposite him.
Tress Way is one of the better punters in the nation who at any time can come up with a 70-yarder. He is averaging 43.21 yards per punt but has a knack for pinning opponents deep in their own territory.
Michael Hunnicutt hasn’t earned the nickname “Moneycutt” for no reason. While he doesn’t often get the chance to kick a field goal due to the success in the redzone, he is 8-for-9 on attempts this season. Thanks to a blunder against UTEP and a bad snap against Texas, Hunnicutt has also missed two on PATs maing him 32-for-34.
This is one of the biggest games of the season. Two of the most historic teams in the nation will face one another in a clash of titans. The atmosphere will most certainly be electric as the Fighting Irish come to town to take on the Oklahoma Sooners.
Notre Dame has run a gauntlet of teams boasting the toughest schedule in the nation. While a win is a win, four victories have come from a margin of seven points or less with one of those coming in overtime. This is a team that has certainly been tested but will the luck of the Irish continue to go their way?
On the flip side of the coin, Oklahoma is scratching its way back into the national title picture and cannot afford another setback. Oklahoma currently sits atop the list on one loss teams but will need a fair share of help to reach the BCS. A victory over media favorite Notre Dame will go a long way in not only helping their case but also in recruiting.