Tonight Notre Dame plays their most important game in over 15 years. It will be a test to determine if they are truly back and competitive, or if the rebuilding process still has a long way to go. Can a team consisting of players who have never had this kind of success at the collegiate level stand up under the pressure and believe in themselves and win with the whole country watching?
To me, you have to remove all of the analysis and hype and determine if the Notre Dame big guys can push around the Oklahoma big guys. Both teams are good, bot have visions of a national championship and both have very talented players, so it is should be a close and exciting game in a difficult environment.
Two years ago in Brian Kelly’s first year we saw Notre Dame get pushed around at home and lose to teams like Tulsa, not the University of Oklahoma, but Tulsa, Oklahoma. In that game an untested freshman quarterback named Tommy Rees rolled to his right and threw an interception rather than setting up a field goal by a kicker who had not missed all year. After the game Brian Kelly brazenly said, “Get used to it, that’s the way we are going to play.” Fortunately, he has learned how to manage close games and he has been less reckless, perhaps understanding more fully what his players can and cannot do. Rees, for instance, has consistently had trouble rolling to his right and throwing interceptions. This year, Notre Dame is winning because they have a strong and proud defense and they have learned how to win.
Notre Dame is being criticized for winning close games, but the reality of that situation is that they know how to win those games. Every team is bound to find itself in close games and not every team or coach knows how to win them. It seems as if the Irish have learned that critical lesson.
Oklahoma is considered one of the best teams in the country and ND is a double digit underdog. It seems like all of the pundits are buying the perception that Notre Dame is fortunate to be undefeated and that they are overmatched, but is that reality? Why is it that Oklahoma is considered to be so good and is that reality or perception? When you look at Oklahoma’s schedule they have played and destroyed 3 weak opponents, and they defeated two Top 25 teams in Texas Tech and Texas. In fact, they beat both of those teams soundly. The only close game they have played, they lost. Kansas State defeated Oklahoma in Norman, 24-17. There is an art to winning close games and Brian Kelly learned his lesson in his first year. I just wonder if Oklahoma will be able to stand up under the pressure of a close game because there is no evidence so far this year that they can.
The key to these big games consistently comes down to which team’s linemen control the line of scrimmage and turnovers. Notre Dame under Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco has made a conscious effort to get big along their offensive and defensive lines. Kelly saw Stanford’s offensive line dominate Notre Dame two years ago and he vowed that ND would become that type of team. They focused heavily on the defense in their recruiting and it is paying huge dividends. Defense keeps you in games so that you have a chance to win close games. It wasn’t that long ago that Notre Dame was not just losing but they were being embarrassed by teams like Stanford, USC, and even NC State. Notre Dame’s defense is very good but they have been the recipients of some good fortune, too, as several times this year receivers have dropped passes while being wide open. It seems to me that Notre Dame will be able to stand up to Oklahoma and the defense will do their job and keep the game close, but the are going to have to pressure Landry Jones and not leave receivers wide open as they have several times, including against Navy.
Notre Dame will try to rush as much as possible, or at least that’s what all of the pundits say. In actuality, ND averages 194 yards rushing and 194 yards passing per game. An offense can’t get more balanced than that. The key stat is scoring. Notre Dame’s defense has held opponents to less than 10 points per game on average, and Oklahoma’s offense scores 45 points per game. If Kansas State can hold Oklahoma to 17 points then Notre Dame can too. Notre Dame’s defense holds teams to 280 yards per game and Oklahoma’s offense averages nearly 500 yards per game. Oklahoma averages 200 rushing yards per game and 290 passing per game, so for all of the talk about their rushing prowess they gain nearly 100 yards per game more through the air.
The second thing to look for is turnovers. Turnovers were the achilles heal of the Irish last year and unfortunately Tommy Rees was the main culprit. For all of the clamoring for Rees to start his completion percentage is the exact same as Everett Golson, 58.5. Golson has thrown 3 interceptions in 135 attempts while Rees has one in just 41 attempts, and he nearly had a second in his start against Miami. Having said that, it’s pretty obvious Rees is the better passer and he has more control of his emotions and the pocket than Golson. Golson brings more mobility and planned runs to the game than Rees and therefore has a bigger upside. The thing that concerns me about turnovers is that when the lights were on for a huge nationally televised game, Golson played like a deer caught in the headlights against Michigan and the moment was too big for him and he threw two interceptions. His other interception was against Navy that didn’t hurt as badly. Unfortunately, Golson has also fumbled 7 times, losing 4 of them, 3 against Stanford. He played poorly against Stanford, so in the two biggest games thus far he has not performed well, throwing 2 interceptions against Michigan and losing three fumbles against Stanford. That can’t happen tonight and my guess is he is on a very short leash. I fear he may not be able to handle the moment tonight and he may also try to prove himself which could lead to turnovers. However, he has to start because Oklahoma is going to bring lots of pressure and ND will absolutely need his mobility. Golson will run often but he needs to protect the football. Rees will be first in if Golson can’t handle the pressure, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Andrew Hendrix get some time tonight. Hendrix is more mobile than Rees, he has a strong arm, but he just cannot read defenses as well as one would like at this level. Still, he may be pressed into action.
Landry Jones gets a lot of praise but he has 3 interceptions in six games also, so he is not exactly Aaron Rodgers either. Jones has a passing efficiency of 62.5, which is only 4 points better than Golson and Rees. Notre Dame will pressure Jones and hopefully that will lead to interceptions and fumbles on his part.
The other thing that helps keep a game close is holding onto the ball, which comes from third down conversions. Good teams average over 20 first downs per game. Notre Dame averages 20.5 and Oklahoma 24. Notre Dame’s ability to convert third downs will have a huge impact on the outcome of tonight’s game.
This is the moment for Everett Golson. He has played less than six collegiate games and has been pulled or was not able to finish 4 of the games in which he has played. He has struggled mightily in the two biggest games of the year and turned the ball over 5 times in those two games. Rees has come to the rescue each time but he too had countless turnovers just a year ago and the season ended on a horrible interception by Rees. Meanwhile, a highly skilled senior is on the other side. Jones was rated the third best quarterback last year behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. The quarterback is the leader and he has to perform well and settle his team down and rise to the occasion. There is no evidence that Golson can do that, but this is why players choose Notre Dame when they are recruited. Games like this make a career and it’s not a matter of coming close, they have to win. Notre Dame simply cannot turn the ball over, they cannot miss field goals as happened last week, they need to convert on third down, and they have to score when they get in the red zone. Getting a good start by winning the coin toss, receiving, and driving down the field to score would go a long way toward raising the confidence level of Golson and quieting the crowd. If the defense plays as well as they have all year then Notre Dame can win this game. It’s a tall order, but Golson has had two weeks to prepare and the last time he had extra time he played his best game of the year.
I say the Irish will win this game and quiet all of the pundits who keep saying they have no chance. You win with defense and ND can line up against anyone.
The Irish stop an Oklahoma drive late to protect the win.