Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE
I decided to go back and rewatch ND-Stanford and use that game as something of a template to break down our matchup with ND this weekend. Spoiler Alert: Stepfan Taylor got the ball across and it should've been a TD.
First of all, let's clarify some differences. ND didn't game plan Stanford like they will for us. Nunes (Stanford QB) is an inconsistent passer, the Stanford WR's have never been taught to catch with their hands, and the weather isn't going to be wet/rainy when we play ND. Lot of ND mistakes that you saw against Stanford, you won't see this Saturday. ND knew that Stanford was going to run first, and they game planned accordingly. Let's begin.
I can cover this quickly so it goes first.
ND's punt coverage team is very good. They locked down a very, very good punt returner in Stanford's Drew Terrell. That said, the wet weather made Terrell a LOT more tentative than I've seen him in other circumstances. He averaged 8/return on the Irish. Justin Brown can get 10 or so a return on average, but they'll be looking for him. Brown is #2 nationally in punt returns.
As for kick coverage, ND doesn't worry about it because they rarely have to do it. Their kicker puts it out of the end zone with frustrating consistency. If we do get a returnable one, it's probably coming back to the 35 or so. ND's kick coverage team is flatly poor. Weather will be a factor if/when ND kicks into the wind.
There's not anyone on ND's return teams (punt or kickoff) who worries me. If they hurt us here, it's because of an abject failure by our coverage teams.
1) OU WRs v. ND Secondary
Guys are going to be WIDE OPEN all night. ND's secondary is neither deep nor elite. They're good enough for their schedule, but this will be, by far, the best and most complicated passing scheme they face all year. Their blogger said that people think the ND secondary is a "raging dumpster fire" but it's really not. He then proceeds to explain that three of their preseason projected starters were lost and two of the current starters are converted WR's. In other words, it's a dumpster fire. When OU goes 4 wide, Notre Dame will have to get pressure out of their base defense without blitzing. Double moves, well-executed rub routes, and Trey Millard are all going to be new concepts to the Irish. Additionally, we can check the aggression of their LB's with good execution in the screen game. Stanford did a good job with the screen game against ND (aside from a poorly executed attempt in OT), and BYU's screen/shovel pass game ate ND up early. BYU's problem was that they didn't have anything to use to play off of the screens as the game wore on.
Watching the ND-Stanford tape, I was absolutely floored how wide open ND left the middle of the field. I think they count on their big DL and LB's to get hands in the passing lane. Further, ND absolutely needed Nunes and the Stanford WR's to suck because there were a number of drives that stalled simply because of Stanford's inability to execute in the passing game. The most savvy football fans appreciate what's really happening at ND. An elite front 7 is hiding the woeful deficiencies of a subpar secondary. Speaking of the front 7...
2) OU OL vs. the ND Front 7
They run a base 3-4 which means we can get big LB's in match-ups against Damien Williams out of the flat if we properly utilize the hurry up. Stanford did this a couple of times, and ND's LBs seemingly relied on being in the passing lane instead of covering the RB. Not to great effect, I might add. There are a lot of yards and first downs to be had here.
ND is going to have success getting pressure with their base package from time to time. Accept that right now. This is a bigger, tougher, more physical unit than OU has faced all year, bar none. The smallest LB they have runs about 240. K-State is the closest we've come to this kind of defense, and they gave us fits. Unlike Texas, ND doesn't arm-tackle, and they don't fear getting hit. The OL is going to have to handle their responsibilities and give Damien Williams and Trey Millard a chance to get to the second level.
Remember the counter-sweep we ran against Texas in 2004? This ND front 7 is prime for that kind of play. They're big and aggressive. And, though they're smart and disciplined, they'll follow motion on the OL and leave DD Williams in open space. Misdirection and jet sweeps will pay dividends here. They just don't have the athleticism to change direction in that situation.
Damien Williams is going to average about 3.6 ypc against ND. The Belldozer will be successful, but not as dominant as it has been of late. Again, accept this now. This D is geared to killing the run game. Also accept that we're going to have to stay committed to pounding the ball or ND is going to pin their ears back and send 6 on every down.
3) Landry vs....well, Landry
He doesn't have to play mistake free football, but he does have to continue to be the same consistent game manager that he's been since the Tech game. If Bad Landry shows up, OU is toast.
4) This isn't a bowl game
A lot of folks are pointing to how successful SEC defenses are in bowl games, and how mightily the OU offense has struggled in those situations. They're right. What they fail to account for is time. There is not a world where a good defensive coordinator with 4 weeks to put together a game plan will not be tactically superior in every way to a good offensive coordinator given the same amount of time. Offenses like OU's rely on complicated timing and precise execution to be successful. Beating that kind of offense requires an intimate knowledge of its tendencies and personnel. You can get that in a month, not a week. Notre Dame is a GREAT defense, make no mistake. But they didn't get 4 weeks to prepare for OU. They've got a little more than one. I say a little more than one because based on their play against BYU, I think it safe to say that ND spent some time last week on us.
When Notre Dame Is On Offense:
1) DO NOT Rehash the K-State Game Plan
If we learned ANYTHING from the K-State loss, it's that Bad Landry and poor red zone execution combined will always mean a loss. But if we learned anything else, it's that even mediocre passers like Colin Klein can eat you up if you give them enough time. The ND OL is good enough to slow down our front 4 and give Golson a 3 count at least. I trust our CB's in coverage against the ND WR's. We're going to win the wide majority of those battles, but if Golson gets four or five seconds to throw, he's going either find someone open or have the back 7 spread out enough to run 25 yards downfield.
Watching ND play Stanford, I realized who they resemble so strongly on offense: Texas. Ash is a mobile QB who can throw but still doesn't make all his reads, and he overestimates himself from time to time. Theo Riddick is a damned fine runner, and the cupboard isn't bare behind him. The OL is good, though not precisely dominant in pass protection, and the receivers are hit and miss. We attacked Ash with delay blitzes and let the DE's make sure he couldn't run around them. We lost contain three times, and none hurt us. Two were incompletions, one was a forced fumble 20 yards downfield by Wort. Golson has been prone to giving up the ball when hit well, so we could get a turnover out of this if we do it right.
2) Tyler Eifert
As far as truly dangerous offensive weapons go, this is Notre Dame's only real one. Everyone else can be accounted for with light to moderate effort. Eifert requires real game planning. With his size, consistent route running, and soft hands, he's pretty much a replica of Jermaine Gresham. Every time he was even remotely open, Golson found him for a first down. Stanford had so little respect for the rest of ND's WRs and their passing game that they pretty much bracketed Eifert on every passing down. ND very rarely made them pay for it.
If I'm Brian Kelly, I move Eifert around to try to get him matched up on an LB if I can, or Gabe Lynn/Javon Harris otherwise. ND isn't going to go four wide very often unless they're trying to get Golson or one of their RB's some room to run against a smaller front, but that's another way they could get better match-ups for Eifert.
3) Stay in the 4-3...
Against Texas, I wanted OU to stay in the base nickel pretty much every down. The Texas offense jet sweep and toss game could be negated with speed and numbers at the point of attack, and their interior OL hadn't shown anything to indicate they could make OU pay for it.
Now, I want us in the 4-3 for as much of the game as is possible. ND is a running team, and they've run a lot of zone read and offtackle plays. Their OL is fair at pulling and moving, though not exceptional. Golson keeps it more than he should, but he's got the speed to make you pay for overplaying the RB. Brian Kelly must've liked OU's policy on teaching WR's how to block downfield, because ND's receivers do a damned good job of it. Stacy McGee gives us an experienced DT and another set of fresh legs to rotate. That's going to matter in the 4th quarter.
Golson will rarely, if ever, look past his 2nd read. Often, he doesn't even go that far. In the 4-3, we can put Corey Nelson or Joe Ibiloye on the line to try to jam Eifert (emphasis on "try") and then carry him back to the secondary. I'm not convinced Golson and the other ND receivers can beat us without our help.
3A) ...Unless Tommy Rees comes in
Tommy Rees is the only passer ND has. And they're fools if he plays a single snap. He's not mobile, he's not a hyper-efficient passer, and he's basically a guy who would require Notre Dame's offense to play directly into the strengths of the OU defense. If Golson is in against BYU, we're talking about a 14 point win instead of a 3 point win. Rees seriously limits the capability of the ND running game. The ND OL just isn't good enough to consistently line up and pound you when you know it's coming. Golson adds versatility that gets LB's second guessing.
If Rees comes in, drop to the nickel. Other than that, ND is far more dangerous running than passing.
4) Attack the edge
ND's blocking from the TE position is woeful. Eifert isn't too bad, but their other guys can be abused by any kind of speed rush. Anytime ND gets in a double TE set, it's an invitation to blitz. Stanford's great OLB Chase Thomas just murderized ND's offense all afternoon out of Stanford's 3-4 when ND went double tight. RJ Washington is a step faster but not nearly as football smart, so we need to get ND in 3rd and long and turn RJ loose.
ND's offensive line gives up more than their fair share of sacks. They've given up 13 so far, and that's with a mobile QB for a number of games. Either Golson doesn't tuck it and run when he should, the ND line doesn't protect him nearly well enough, or it's some combination of the two. From what I saw against Stanford, it's a combination. They had luck getting to him on several occasions, but he also didn't take off a few times when he could've had 4-5 yards.
OU 31 - ND 17
Assuming Landry doesn't spit the bit, OU should open up a good lead in the 2nd quarter and ND just won't have the firepower to come back in the 4th. A late Belldozer TD seals the win.