It wasn't all that likely the OU defense was going to match its counterpart punch-for-punch all night, but their repeated failure to get stops on third down proved to be a killer.
* Before we even get started, I need to explain that little asterisk. In my profession of accounting, we often use symbols such as an asterisk as what are sometimes referred to as 'tickmarks.' And not to bore you with the unnecessary details, but it's done as a form of shorthand and reference rather than having to continually use the same explanation over and over again. You can simply refer someone back to the explanation by inserting a symbol, like the asterisk, similar to the 'key' included on most maps.
So I want to include this here, right from the get go, just so things are perfectly clear. Nothing I'm about to write here, or at any other point in the coming days, about Saturday night's game is meant to, in any way shape or form, take away from what Notre Dame accomplished. Oklahoma got beat by a better team. It is that simple. It wasn't the refs, it wasn't Landry Jones, it wasn't whatever else you want to put out there. Notre Dame was/is better than Oklahoma.
All that said, we're a site that covers Oklahoma. So we're going to discuss things from an Oklahoma perspective and analyze what the Sooners did and did not do successfully in this game. So this asterisk is my way of giving Notre Dame the credit it deserves without having to constantly repeat myself by prefacing everything I am and will write about this game. Today very likely will not be the only time you see it, so if you need to you can always come back to this post and know that I've given Notre Dame the proper and deserved respect.
Okay, so we good? Moving on.
The Notre Dame defense drew all the headlines prior to Saturday night's kickoff and rightfully so as they certainly lived up to their billing. However, the Oklahoma defense was playing as well as just about anyone coming into this 'epic showdown' as it was being billed in the media.
Saturday night, one defense lived up to the hype while one came up short much too often. I doubt I have to clarify for you which was which.
We said going into the game that the Oklahoma defense would have to do several specific things if the Sooners were to come out victorious. (1) Win the turnover battle, (2) shutdown the Irish run game, and (3) don't let Everett Golson extend the play and/or beat you with his legs.
Fail, fail, and fail.
We'll take them in order. Turnovers weren't the difference in this game like they were in the loss to Kansas State as the game's only turnover, by Oklahoma, did lead to three points for Notre Dame but certainly was not a deciding factor in the outcome. The issue here isn't that Oklahoma had the game's lone turnover, but that they never even came close to forcing one from a redshirt freshman quarterback playing in the biggest game of his young career on your own home field. The OU defense never came close to pressuring Golson or forcing him into poor decisions with the football.
39 carries, 215 yards, 5.5 yard per carry average. That simply isn't good enough. We knew going in that if Notre Dame could run the ball on a consistent basis, it was going to be a long night for our Sooners. Sadly, that's exactly how things played out. Yes, they really only had that one big play in the Cierre Wood 62-yard touchdown run. But it wasn't about that one play as much as it was the multiple long, sustained drives they had as a result of the four, five, or six yard plays. The Irish offense was constantly on and/or ahead of schedule with respect to the chains and we cannot stress enough how big a difference that made in this game.
No. 3 was the backbreaker. It was something we talked about being very afraid of in the week leading up to the game and as we know now we had good reason to be. Golson made plays all night long with his legs and while they weren't of the game-breaking variety, but they were more like the death by a tiny little cuts variety if you'll allow for the poor attempt at a metaphor. Whether he was scrambling away from what little pressure Oklahoma was able to manage or converting third down after third down, Golson was about as close to perfect (barring the Tony Jefferson kill shot) as I suspect any Notre Dame fan could have hoped for in this game.
Some other general thoughts on this game from the Oklahoma defensive perspective:
- Cannot say enough for the game Brian Kelly called Saturday night. Simply put, it was brilliant. Granted, it was made much easier by Oklahoma's failure to stop the Irish run game but brilliant nonetheless. He never asked Golson to do more than he was capable of and consistently put him in positions to be successful. Novel concept, right?
- The Oklahoma defense was atrocious on third downs. Notre Dame was 7 for 15 on third down conversions and if you had asked me prior to seeing the box score I'd have bet you my next paycheck it was closer to 15 for 15.
- The front four is about as irrelevant and non-existent in this recap as they were in the game. Shockingly bad against a solid Notre Dame offensive line, but certainly not one that should have dominated Oklahoma as thoroughly as they did.
- Really felt like Oklahoma's tackling in the game was horrible. There were several times, on third downs, where the defense could have ended a Irish drive only to miss a tackle and allow it to continue. Again, it wasn't so much missing tackles that lead to touchdowns rather missed tackles at the line of scrimmage that turned what might have been no and/or a short gain into a four or five yard gain.
- My initial inclination was to state that Aaron Colvin played one of the worst games I've ever seen him play, but after some time to think about it feel that is a little harsh. Don't get me wrong, he did not play well but he also wasn't as bad as I originally thought. He was close on just about every play in which he was beaten, but that only made it more frustrating. Just a step late on multiple occasions, which was so bizarre because he's been virtually flawless all year.
- There are simply no more excuses to be made for why Tom Wort is still this team's starting middle linebacker. I hate to bag on the guy, I honestly do, but the same issues continue to show up on film. His inability to shed a block and repeated problem of getting sucked up into the play directly led to that 62-yard touchdown run. He also failed to keep up with an Irish running back out of the backfield midway through the fourth quarter that lead to Golson's short touchdown run.
- I know people are ripping Javon Harris for that 50-yard pass and I understand why. He definitely reverted back to a bad habit and bit on the play action. However, to be fair, based on what I saw that blame deserves to be shared with Demontre Hurst. The Sooners senior corner was lined up at least 10 yards off the receiver pre-snap and yet still allowed Chris Brown to get behind him. With that kind of cushion, you simply cannot allow that to happen. I get the argument that he could have thought he was supposed to have help over the top, but in watching the play I just don't believe that to be the case. Or at least not the primary problem on the play. From my couch, it just looks like he got beat. And I think you could argue it was the difference in the game. OU had just tied things up and then bang, gut-punch momentum swing in the blink of an eye.