Notre Dame has its work cut out for it this weekend when they square off with #8 Oklahoma on the road. The 5th ranked Irish head to Norman a double digit underdog despite a top 5 ranking and a goose egg in the loss column at the end of October. The reason for that is the fact that Oklahoma is by far the toughest test the 2012 Fighting Irish have faced so far this year.
The Irish were uninspiring last week in a three point win over BYU. A smilar performance this week and Notre Dame will be out of the national championship picture faster than you can say Boomer Sooner. Despite what some in the media would lead you to believe though, the Irish have a chance to pull off the upset and head back to South Bend with their title dreams still intact.
Here’s what needs to happen for those dreams to become a reality.
Get Everett Golson on the Run
Take away Everett Golson’s fumbles against Stanford and that game would have never went to overtime because Notre Dame could have won comfortably. That’s a terrible “what if” since Stanford had something to do with them, but all three fumbles were completely avoidable by Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback. On his first, he’s got to feel the pass rush and be extra careful with the ball in the end zone, on his second Golson made a poor exchange for an unforced error, and on his last, he should have stepped out of bounds without ever putting himself in position to fumble.
The point here isn’t to rehash the Stanford game or make the case that Notre Dame should have won that game easier. Rather, it’s to point out that without those fumbles, the Irish offense was moving the ball on the Stanford defense – a defense that is arguably better than the one they’ll face this weekend – once Golson started taking off.
Notre Dame has to get Golson ont he run with some designed runs to keep the Oklahoma defense honest. Last week we saw a new wrinkle of George Atkinson on the field at the same time as Cierre Wood with Atkinson being set in motion. Throw in a mobile quarterback would can now handle off to Atkinson on the move, give it to Wood next to him, or take off on his own and there’s another dimenson to the offense.
Getting Golson on the run has also settled down the young quarterback in the passing department too. His best games running the ball – Miami and Stanford – were also two of his best performances throwing the ball. Bottom line – when Golson runs (and holds onto the football), good things happen for the Notre Dame offense.
Protect the Football
Now, the double edge sword with getting Golson on the move is the possibility of Golson turning it over. I outlined above how all three of his fumbles against Stanford were avoidable had Golson just been a little more cautious and known the situation, but the problem is, he knew the situation and still turned the ball over. I am sure Brian Kelly has made Golson watch each of those fumbles over and over again, but ball security has been an issue for Golson all season so its probably unrealistic to expect that a week off due to his concussion has suddenly corrected the issue.
As I said above though, Notre Dame is going to have to roll the dice and let Golson run in order to get this offense moving against the Oklahoma defense. So, it will be up to Golson to hold onto the ball and make smarter decisions this week. Decisions like sliding instead of taking big hits and ducking out of bounds instead of fighting for an extra two or three yards. It sounds simple enough, but as a fan of an NFL team that employs Michael Vick as its starting quarterback, I can tell you seeing that put in practice with mobile quarterbacks is anything but a simple process.
Cut Out the Silly Penalties
This one goes without saying in a big game, but Notre Dame has had far too many procedure and personal foul penalties over the last few weeks – penalties they just can’t have this weekend. Emotions will be running high so Notre Dame has to be careful to not get flagged for late hits and the like. That is sometimes tough with an agressive defense like Notre Dame’s because they are always flying to the ball, but Oklahoma’s offense is jut too good to give them a free 15 yards at any time.
On the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame has to stop shooting itself in the foot with false starts near the red-zone. This has been an issue the last few weeks with the Irish playing at home in Notre Dame Stadium which makes me particularly nervous for what might happen here with them playing in front of a raucous crowd in Norman.
Smack Oklahoma in the Mouth Early
Notre Dame has to set the tone in order to keep this one within arms reach reach early. Oklahoma has the kind of fire power to jump out in front of any defense – even one as stout as Notre Dame’s – if you let them. To combat that, Notre Dame has to come out early and set the tone that this will be a knock down, drag out fight – not a track meet. Notre Dame’s offense isn’t evolved enough right now to hang in a track meet with Oklahoma, but if they can come out and slow the game down and hit Oklahoma in the mouth early to let them know this is going to be a heavyweight fight, the Irish will be in this one throughout.
The best case scenario for the Irish actually would be to start the game with the ball and have a slow, methodical drive down the field featuring a heavy dose of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood that ends in some points. Any points will do actually as long as Notre Dame comes out and establishes the run, controls the clock, and settles down the crowd a little. If Notre Dame comes out and proceeds to produce a three and out and give Oklahoma the ball with good field position or lets the Sooner offense march down the field should they start with the ball, it’ll set a tone that will be tough to overcome.
Find the X-Factor
Almost every time Notre Dame has played in a big game where it’s been the underdog and has either won or been in the game over the last 20 years or so they have found an x-factor. Against Miami in ’88 Pat Terrell returned that interception for a touchdown. Against the Hurricanes in ’90 Rocket Ismail took a kickoff to the house. In ’05 Tommy Zbikowski returned that punt for a touchdown. When Nebraska came to town in 2000 Joey Getherall took a punt back for six and Julius Jones did the same on a kickoff.
Facing its toughest opponent, on the road, with an offense that has been inconsistent, Notre Dame is going to need a play like that in order to come out with the win. It doesn’t need to be a kick return or a pick six though. Notre Dame has some youngsters on its roster that have seen the field but not been a factor yet that could provide that x-factor tomorrow.
I am talking about Chris Brown and Davonte Neal. Brown got behind both the Purdue and Michigan State defenses in weeks 2 and 3 but Golson missed him both times. We haven’t seen him since, but if there was ever a time for Notre Dame to revisit getting Brown on the field to take a shot, it would be this weekend. Same goes for Neal. We’ve seen him show just a few glimpses on punt returns, but outside of the first few weeks we haven’t seen him on offense. If Kelly and Chuck Martin have a trick play or two designed for Neal, now would be the time to unveil it.
Special Teams Perfection
Notre Dame’s special teams have been spotty to say the least this year. Both the kick and punt return units have been nonfactors and punting has been inconsistent all season long. Place kicking had been the most stable unit of the special teams prior to last week, but then Kyle Brindza missed field goals from 28 and 40 yards to finish just 1 for 3 on the game. Two weeks ago Notre Dame left points on the board at the end of the first half too when a botch snap on a field goal at the end of the first half resulted in no points for the Irish and set up Stanford for a field goal of their own – a six point swing right before the half.
If Notre Dame is to improve to 8-0 on the season, they can’t leave points on the field this week as they have in recent weeks. Brindza needs to be spot on on field goals, Turk needs to help Notre Dame win the field position game and let the Irish defense do its thing, and there isn’t a better time for George Atkinson III or Davonte Neal to rip off a big return.
People keep talking about the OU offense vs. the ND defense and even the OU defense vs. the ND offense, but special teams could very well be the difference this week.