As I imagine many an OU fan did this past Saturday with their team on a bye week, I tuned into the Notre Dame vs. Michigan State game to get an idea what the Sooners could be facing this coming weekend. I watched every snap that took place in a game that, at times, was pretty difficult to watch.
I didn't have very high expectations going into things knowing that Michigan State's offense is limited (at best) and Notre Dame still fields a stout defense. In addition, the Irish offense has been a work in progress to this point while the Spartans have a stingy defense of their own. And that's pretty much how things played out Saturday in South Bend.
I simply want to put some of my thoughts down on paper as we head into a game week many an OU fan are anticipating with the idea of revenge on their minds after the Irish came into Norman last year and left victorious. Before I get to my thoughts, I feel it necessary to make the following obvious but necessary qualifier.
This was just one game and one in which Notre Dame, by their own admission, did not play particularly well in. So by no means do I take what I witnessed as the be-all and end-all sample with which to judge this ND team. I'm pretty confident most of you are well aware of this, but on the chance that some of our Irish friends make their way to CCM this week I felt it necessary to make just to be perfectly clear.
That said, we're only able to work with the tools available to us and with what I've been able to read in addition to Saturday's game I feel most of what I took away from the game to be pretty fair.
- This is most definitely not the same quality of team Notre Dame brought to Norman last year. Though to be fair, I'm pretty sure very few (if any) people were under any impression otherwise. They appear to be a team somewhat limited offensively under Tommy Rees and without the athletic ability of Everett Golson that played such a significant role in the game last season.
- The Irish front seven is still quite formidable, but not nearly as much so as last year. It obviously all starts with Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix up front, but if you weren't already familiar remember the name Prince Shembo who was very disruptive against Michigan State.
- The ND secondary is still suspect, much like it was last year. However, because of the pressure the Irish were able to generate on Landry Jones the Sooners were never really able to exploit it instead relying heavily on short, quick routes. If Oklahoma can protect Blake Bell, there will be ample opportunities for him to go down the field with the football.
- I already mentioned Golson and if you remember anything from this game last year it was just how good he was in the game. I think it's fair to say he hadn't played that well in a game prior to coming to Norman and did not play as well in another for the remainder of the season. Rees is very much in the mold of Jones, i.e. a stationary target, which should help this OU defense.
- I came away thoroughly confused as to what the Notre Dame offense was trying to accomplish on Saturday. From what I was able to gather, Brian Kelly went into the game with a plan to try and stretch the field with passes down the field much more than they had done in previous games. What it looked like from an outsider's perspective was an offense consisting almost entirely of either (1) back shoulder fade routes or (2) heaves down field while praying for a pass interference call. To say the refs bailed the Irish out on multiple occasions would be putting it kindly. Which will be something to keep in mind in this game as it's expected OU will bring with them Big 12 refs, but I'm not sure how much of an advantage that might be.
- The Irish have a lot of talent at the wide receiver position, which is easily the strength of this offense. Rees showed a willingness to give them chances to make a play on the ball, frequently tossing up what could best be described as 50-50 balls. To their credit, more often than not the ND receivers came down with the ball OR were the beneficiary of a pass interference call. There were a number of opportunities for interceptions had the Michigan State defenders been able to find the ball, something Oklahoma had a similar problem with in last year's game. If Kelly employs a similar game plan this coming Saturday, there could certainly be a number of chances for the OU secondary to take away the football.
- Notre Dame seems pretty limited at the running back position and don't really possess any one talented back that scares you. They typically start George Atkinson, who did not play in last year's game, but their most effective back on Saturday was Cam McDaniel. McDaniel is not a big back, listed generously at 5'10" and a little over 200 pounds, but has good quickness and the patience to allow the running lanes to develop against a tough Spartan run defense. He's definitely a guy I could see getting the lion's share of the carries this Saturday given how effective he was against MSU.
- One time OU commit and five star running back recruit, Greg Bryant, has played sparingly at best this season (only three carries to this point) but did not enter the game on Saturday. I certainly do not expect him to be a factor this weekend, but just for those who follow recruiting I wanted to include that minor update.
- I won't be at all surprised if Josh Heupel employs a similar game plan to the one he used against the Irish last year and, to a certain extent, the one he used against Tulsa. Spread the defense out with four wide receiver sets, trying to wear out the front seven by forcing them to cover a lot of ground, and exploit a suspect ND secondary. I firmly believe Heupel is going to have to get creative with his run calls as OU will not able to simply line up and run over the Notre Dame defense, even if they're not as good as they were last year. Heupel has shown a preference, in my opinion, to running between the tackles and if he chooses to do so on Saturday I expect OU's run game to struggle mightily. However, if he can get the OU backs to the edge and with Trey Millard, Aaron Ripkowski, and a wide receiving unit that excels at blocking down the field then I think OU can have the success they need in the run game.
If I'm honest, it was hard not to come away from that game pretty confident in OU's chances of pulling out a win of their own on the road. Now don't take that to mean the Sooners can simply show up and come away with the win as the Irish still have plenty of talent, but there is also no denying this year's squad is a far cry from the one they brought to Norman last year.
Going into this season I think a number of OU fans, myself included, marked this game down as a loss. And it very well still could be at this time next week. But from what we've seen to this point and if Saturday was any indication, OU's odds of beating Notre Dame seem to have increased fairly significantly.