For the 90th time in school history — and the first since 2006 — a top 10 Notre Dame team will play a top 10 opponent Saturday night. ESPN’s College Gameday circus will be in tow for the second time this month to watch the fifth-ranked Irish travel to No. 8 Oklahoma in one of the top marquee match-ups left in college football’s regular season.
“This is why you coach at Notre Dame,” head coach Brian Kelly said during his normal Tuesday press conference. “There’s an excitement, but there’s also a realization that only gets you so far.”
Kelly has much further lengths he’d like to travel in South Bend, but this week’s game in Norman is a crossroads for the third-year head coach between why he came here and where he hopes to be going. On the opposite sideline is a guide of sorts in Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops. Big Game Bob, they call him.
Stoops’ teams have won 79 of the 83 games he has coached in Oklahoma’s Memorial Stadium. Fifteen ranked teams have come to Norman since Stoops took over the head coaching job in 1999, and before Kansas State handed them their only loss so far this season on Sept. 22, the Sooners had beaten them all. If Notre Dame wins this weekend it will be the first time a Stoops-coached team lost two home games in the same year.
Notre Dame has been circled on Oklahoma's calendar this season for historical reasons, but the excitement from battles between top-ranked teams is a regular occurrence for Stoops' team.
“That’s where we want to get our football program,” Kelly said. “We’re nowhere near that yet. We think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re trending the right way. But I think the hallmark of great programs is that consistency. That consistency that we saw here for a number of years, that we haven’t seen, we want to be able to bring that back. That takes time and that takes a lot of winning.”
Winning Saturday would be a major checkpoint for Kelly. A victory would give Notre Dame its best start in a decade, his first win against a program he wants to emulate and a realistic shot at an undefeated season. The wide angle look at Saturday’s game and its implications on where the Irish are heading is harrowing.
Kelly, as he has done all year, is trying to keep his players focused on just putting one foot in front of the other.
“Our guys gotta worry about whether they’re stepping with their right foot or their left foot. Those numbers [Stoop’s win total] really are not something we bring up, but clearly we know how good they are,” Kelly said.
The first small step this weekend for Notre Dame is making sure Oklahoma doesn’t take too many big ones. The Sooners have had 22 plays of 30 yards or more in the first half of their regular season — eight of them for more than 60 yards.
Kelly said the Irish defense takes pride in its ability to limit big plays so far this year. The surprising secondary has shown cracks, but hasn’t crumbled in its first seven games. They have allowed only two passes longer than 30 yards this season — the second lowest mark in the nation. They have had help from the front seven, who will play a big role again this weekend in keeping senior quarterback Landry Jones from feeling as comfortable as he normally does at home.
“If he’s in a rhythm, like most good quarterbacks, he’s going to be tough to beat,” Kelly said. “This is a very talented player. If he gets on a roll, and he can set his feet every play, you’re in for a long day.”
Kelly admitted that Jones’ 43 career starts and 14,023 passing yards should give the Sooners an advantage over sophomore Everett Golson and his five career starts, only one of them in a true road game. Golson passed his last exertion test Monday and is on track to start for the Irish this weekend after missing last week due to a concussion.
“You would think that an experienced quarterback — somebody that has been there done that, has won a lot of games — would have the edge over a young, inexperienced quarterback, but you don’t until Saturday hits. That’s the great thing about these games.”