Date: Sept. 28 at Notre Dame
Maybe the most astounding single series record in Notre Dame’s first 125 years of football is its 9-1 domination over the University of Oklahoma. In six of those Fighting Irish victories, the Sooners were ranked in the top 10.
Quarterback Blake Bell has scored 24 touchdowns the past two years in specialized jumbo packages near the goal line.
The series began in 1952, the height of Oklahoma’s budding dynasty under Sooners head coach Bud Wilkinson. Remarkably, the Irish were 3-1 against Oklahoma in the 1950s, highlighted by snapping OU’s NCAA-record 47-game winning streak in 1957.
Notre Dame was 4-0 versus the Sooners in the 1960s. Next, even with a 5-7 record in 1999 under Bob Davie, the Fighting Irish vanquished first-year Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops’ team in 1999, 34-30. Last year Notre Dame improved its record to an amazing 5-0 in Norman with a 30-13 conquest against a Sooner unit that at the time was ranked No. 8 in the BCS and favored to defeat the Irish.
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Perhaps sensing that a staleness has overtaken the program, 14th-year head coach Stoops had the biggest attrition on his staff in one season when he replaced three assistants shortly after signing day. Among them was defensive tackles coach Jackie Shipp, who had been with Stoops the entire term since 1999.
“People get bored with just winning the Big 12 championship. They want more. You've got to win the national championship," Stoops said.
The three new additions to the staff are offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, tight ends coach Jay Boulware and defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. The changes were made to help upgrade the play along the line of scrimmage, which included a No. 89 ranking against the run, and in overall recruiting. In this year’s recruiting efforts, two junior-college offensive linemen were added, along with seven defensive linemen, including four tackles.
Personnel-wise, leading receiver Kenny Stills, top tackler/safety Tony Jefferson and linebacker Tom Wort all were early defections to the NFL, but All-Big 12 corner Aaron Colvin is back.
Oklahoma might have a more ground-oriented attack with 6-6, 263-pound powerhouse Blake “Belldozer” Bell replacing the graduated four-year starter Landry Jones at quarterback. Bell has scored 24 touchdowns the past two years in Oklahoma’s jumbo package near the goal line. In addition, four starters return along the line (led by center Gabe Ikard), as do running backs Damien Williams and Brennan Clay, who combined for 1,501 yards rushing in 2012. Receivers Jalen Saunders (15 catches for 181 yards versus the Irish last year) and Sterling Shepard (45 receptions as a freshman in 2012) provide quality targets.
The biggest plus just might be some newness with the staff and at QB. Jones was to Oklahoma football sort of what Ron Powlus was at Notre Dame from 1994-97: Record-breaking numbers and comported himself well in the spotlight … but just never had the right mix or supporting cast to take the program to the elite level, so he constantly found himself under scrutiny and criticism.
Only four starters return from a defense that Texas A&M Heisman winner Johnny Manziel himself torched for 287 yards passing and 229 rushing during a 41-13 romp in the Cotton Bowl. Reports have OU maybe moving to a new 3-4 alignment after performing so poorly against the run and yielding the most points in the 14-year Stoops era (25.46 per game).
Oklahoma, which began spring practice March 5, used to be a regular in the top 5 and definitely top 10 of recruiting, but it has finished outside that upper echelon three straight years.
The Sooners will have an extra week to prepare for Notre Dame after hosting Tulsa on Sept. 14, while the Irish will be coming off their Big Ten triumvirate of Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State. That in itself could make this a little bit more of a difficult challenge from a Sooner program that is looking to regain some stature with a marquee win on the road.
In fact, Oklahoma right now reminds us a little of Notre Dame at this time last season: Branded as chronic underachievers, living on past glory, new quarterback with some question marks, shakeups within the staff, needing to establish a more physical approach along the line of scrimmage, under the radar … that’s when programs like these often rise with, “Whoa, where did that come from?” type of seasons when the expectations are lower.
There is a possibility that Stoops and Co. might have hit their plateau and will remain the proverbial “solid” 10-3-type program that falters in the spotlight. A victory at Notre Dame would do a lot to help change that perception, which is what could make the 2013 Sooners dangerous.