Contrary to what ESPN may have lead you to believe, Notre Dame won't simply be lining up their All-American linebacker, Manti Te'o, to go 1 vs. 11 Saturday night against Oklahoma. Make no mistake, the incredibly talented Te'o is the one whose name is up in lights, and for good reason, but he is certainly not the only Irish defender this Sooners offense will have to concern themselves with once they hit Owen Field.
Don't get it twisted, Te'o is worthy of all the praise he's receiving. He is an absolute tackling machine and possesses elite coverage recognition, which is a rare quality in a linebacker. He is a player you must account for on every single down and he is the unquestioned leader of this Notre Dame defense (if not the team). All of that without even mentioning the horrific personal tragedies he's had to overcome this season, which bare little relevance to this other than giving me an opportunity to offer my sincere condolences and respect.
So none of this is, in any way, meant to slight his many accomplishments and stellar play so far this season. Rather, it's to credit those around him which I suspect he's just as quick to do when it comes to his success and the overall success of this Irish defense.
One of the primary reasons (aside from his absurd god-given talent of course) Te'o is so productive is a result of those playing in front of him. I'm speaking of 6'4" 306 pound Kapron Lewis-Moore, 6'3" 326 pound Louis Nix, and 6'6" 303 pound Stephon Tuitt. Read through that at least one more time, because that front line is insane.
To that very point, I'm fairly certain you can guess where I was headed with this. Any one of the three can demand a double team at any given time, which equates to one less blocker and thus more room for Te'o to make plays all over the field. As big a fan as I am, it's very difficult for me to see Gabe Ikard holding up one-on-one against Nix on a consistent basis. Which means either Adam Shead or Bronson Irwin will be forced to help and that could take away from either pulling in the OU run game which is a fixture within this Sooners offense.
In the end (h/t Bob Stoops), it's pretty simple really. As with most All-American linebackers, the more their front four can keep blockers off of them the more plays they are left to make. Former Sooner Brian Bosworth was as talented as any linebacker to have ever played the game and he'd be the first one to tell you he couldn't have made half the plays he did were it not the guys playing in front of him.
Oh, and by the way it's not just their three down linemen that are gigantic. The aforementioned Te'o runs a solid 255 pounds, a 255 that can cover sideline to sideline all day long mind you, but the rest of Notre Dame's linebackers are also quite stout. Borrowing from a comment made here by One Foot Down's Eric Murtaugh, the Irish linebackers who typically see the field go 248, 250, 255, 240, and 245.
Now, granted, it's a 3-4 defense so you are supposed to have bigger linebackers but this is a front seven unlike any Oklahoma will or has faced this season. Rushing yards will not come easy and I will not be surprised if Damien Williams, even with as talented as we all know him to be, or any OU running back struggles to gain yards on a consistent basis.
In fact, I think a game plan designed to feature the run game would be an unmitigated disaster. Some will argue that Oklahoma has to establish some semblance of a run game on Saturday night and while I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that sentiment, it serves no purpose to continue to pound it into a brick wall if it's not working and you're continually punting the ball away to your opponent.
Regardless of what any angry Notre Dame fan emails me about arguing to the contrary, the weak point of this Irish defense is in the secondary. Oklahoma should have a significant advantage Saturday night matching up with Notre Dame's defensive backs and you can exploit Josh Heupel and Landry Jones to exploit that advantage early and often.
That does not mean Heupel should completely abandon the run game (though all of us here know just how much he'd love to do that!), but make some of those short, quick passes on screens and/or to the running backs simply an extension of your run game. I mean, how many times have we heard coaches beat us over the head with that worn out quote?
Alright, forgive me in advance for the idiotic simplicity of what I'm about to say. This will be a group effort in every way with respect to this Oklahoma offense against the Notre Dame defense. The offensive line better pack a lunch, so to speak, because they are going to have their hands full. Likewise, Heupel (in terms of the game plan) and Jones (in terms of getting rid of the ball quickly) will need to do their part to help the five guys up front. If Jones can make smart, quick reads and get rid of the ball quickly it will go a LONG way towards negating this Irish front seven.
Anything else and it could be a long night for our Sooners.