NORMAN, Okla. — Brian Kelly had time for one more question.
Irish linebacker Manti Te'o picks up his first sack of the season in a 30-13 win over Oklahoma.
The Irish head coach fielded 15 minutes worth of them and then scanned the cramped interview room tucked away inside the Sooners’ Memorial Stadium happy to entertain a final thought. No one spoke. For the second time that night the crowd watching him fell silent. In a definitive 30-13 road victory against No. 8 Oklahoma there was no question left to ask. Kelly, his quarterback and his suffocating defense had answered them all.
No. 5 Notre Dame rode into Norman as a double-digit underdog, escorted by doubts about its legitimacy and its right to butt into the national championship discussion with a 7-0 start devoid of style points. Could its defense stand up to an elite Big 12 passing attack? Could its rookie quarterback handle what was undoubtedly the biggest, most intimidating stage of his young career?
Oklahoma(5-2) raised those points more than once Saturday night, and each time the Irish responded.
Their biggest answer came on a 73-yard tie-breaking march late in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma’s Blake Bell tied the score at 13-13 with a one-yard goal line plunge with nine minutes remaining, setting up sophomore Everett Golson with a chance to prove he could carry his team to a win. Golson completed all four passing attempts on the drive that followed, none bigger than the play action bomb he dropped into the arms of freshman Chris Brown — Brown's first career reception — behind the Sooners’ safeties for a 50-yard gain. Four plays later Golson ran into the end zone from a yard out to for the game-winning score.
“I think the big play of the game was obviously the big response after the touchdown. …That gave us a spark and we were able to build off of that,” Kelly said. “I thought tonight was a big step up for our quarterback, and our offense elevated itself against great competition on the road.”
Golson threw for 188 yards on 14-of-27 passing without a turnover. He also contributed 66 more on the ground for an offense that topped 200 rushing yards for the third time in four games.
The running game provided the first emphatic answer of the night. Two plays after the Sooners opened the scoring with a first quarter field goal, senior Cierre Wood dashed 62 yards untouched through the middle of the Sooners' defense for the first touchdown of the night. He finished the game tied with running mate Theo Riddick for a team-high 74 yards. Riddick carried 19 times, the final one for a 15-yard cherry-on-top touchdown that turned an otherwise closely contested game into a benchmark win for the Irish and their head coach.
Notre Dame scored the game’s final 17 points in its last five minutes. After Golson’s touchdown dive, Irish captain Manti Te’o ended any hopes of an Oklahoma comeback with his fifth interception of the season. Sophomore Kyle Brindza turned the pick into a 46-yard field goal that bumped the Irish lead to 23-13.
Notre Dame has turned to Te’o, its emotional leader, all year in big moments. He came through again in Norman with 11 tackles and a quarterback-flattening sack before ending the game by clinging to Landry Jones’ deflected pass. The controversial play was reviewed but upheld, drawing one final loud roar of protest from the home crowd.
“I was telling all the coaches … they came up to me and were like, ‘Did you catch it?’ I went, ‘yeah, I caught it.’ It bobbled around a little bit, but I had possession of it,” Te’o said.
Jones, a senior, threw the ball 51 times for 356 yards but no touchdowns as his final chance to enter national title talk and cement a legacy at Oklahoma slipped away. He picked apart a well-cushioned Notre Dame secondary from start to finish with warning track power. Recently activated transfer Jalen Saunders caught 15 passes for 181 yards while setting a school record with eight in the first quarter. At times, especially early, the uptempo attack overwhelmed the Irish. The Sooners, though, failed to capitalize.
A wayward snap reversed a promising opening series, pushing the Oklahoma offense backward 19 yards and giving Notre Dame a chance to catch its breath. Two other times during the first half, Jones hurried his team into the red zone only to settle for field goals. Sophomore Michael Hunnicut connected from 24 yards in the first quarter and again from 30 to make the score 10-6 heading into the halftime break.
Oklahoma came into Saturday’s game with the highest red zone success rate in the country having converted 32 of its previous 33 trips — 25 of them touchdowns. Notre Dame’s defense was tops in the nation for stopping teams inside the 20, allowing only four touchdowns in its first seven games. The Irish were the better team in close quarters, and it cost the Sooners.
“There were opportunities early to get more points and make a change on the way the game was played a little bit,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “[We] didn’t do that. Did some things really well at times, did some good things in tempo, and sometimes our tempo wasn’t good. We didn’t execute well enough.”
The Sooners did finally crack the end zone thanks to their 255-pound battering ram Bell. He ran twice and converted a fourth down jump pass to fullback Trey Millard for eight yards to get his team to the doorstep. Then he trampled an Irish defender before reaching across the goal line to end Notre Dame’s 10-game streak of not allowing a rushing touchdown.
Bell finished with six of Oklahoma’s 15 net rushing yards. Notre Dame ended any external search for its identity by acquitting itself at the line of scrimmage once again. The team put its familiar stamp on this win in the third quarter by piecing together two 14-play drives and hanging onto the ball for all but three minutes. They ended the game by sacking Jones a second time and denying a garbage time touchdown from the one-yard line, which made its snapped streak easier to stomach.
“It’s not that disappointing,” fifth-year defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said about giving up a touchdown on the ground. “We came out with the W in a very hostile environment and that’s what’s most important. Now we’ve just got to keep this rolling.”
Only relative speed bumps remain now for Notre Dame before a season finale showdown in Los Angeles against the rival Trojans. Barring any meltdowns, the Irish should march into the Coliseum with a still unblemished record and a chance to make their case for a spot in the national title game.
They will need some help from the three unbeaten teams that still sit ahead of them in the BCS standings. Undefeated seasons from Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State would likely be enough to relegate a 12-0 Notre Dame team to a consolation game.
Those answers won’t come for another month and will be out of Kelly’s hands. Those questions won’t come if his team fails to keep the consistent approach that has brought them to the BCS scales. For now Kelly and the Irish have made their case, and have not been found wanting.