If Notre Dame’s big, athletic tight ends create nightmarish mismatches by catching passes, imagine what they would do throwing them. That’s essentially what Oklahoma has in sophomore quarterback Blake Bell.
Oklahoma sophomore Blake Bell runs for one of his eight touchdowns this season.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound short-yardage specialist is the Sooners' most potent offensive weapon. Bell has 31 rushing attempts in his first six games this season, and he scored touchdowns on eight of them. He completed seven of his 12 passing attempts to keep defenses honest, but Oklahoma makes no attempt to hide their plans when Bell takes over for senior starter Landry Jones.
“If it's first and goal from the five, we're going to have a hard time keeping them out of the end zone,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “If he's on the field, we're going to have to do something really extraordinary, because he's a tough guy to stop.”
Bell’s first carries Saturday night will be the closest thing to the immovable object-irresistible force conundrum either party has seen this year. Notre Dame’s defense has been particularly immovable in red zone situations where Bell has been best. The last player to run for a score against the Irish defense was Boston College’s run-first specialty quarterback Josh Bordner, who gives two inches and 30 pounds to Bell.
It’s been 38 quarters since anyone else crossed the Irish goal line with a running play. Statistically, Notre Dame has the best red zone defense in college football. The Irish have allowed only four touchdowns in 19 trips inside the 20, less than anyone in the country. They are second in overall scoring percentage, allowing points on only 51.72 percent of opponents’ red zone chances.
“When we’re in the red zone we understand that we have to really tighten down and understand where we are on the field,” senior linebacker Manti Te’o said. “I think for the defense you just have to understand who you’re going up against.”
This week that would be the No. 1-ranked red zone offense. Oklahoma, thanks in no small part to Bell, has scored 32 times in 33 red zone chances this season, 25 of them touchdowns. Only last year’s Stanford team had a higher success rate on finishing drives in the past six seasons.
Te’o has seen Bell’s patience on film, watched the way he idles behind an offensive line before attacking daylight and carrying linebackers with him — linebackers that he typically outweighs. He studied the sophomore’s four-touchdown performance in the first half against Texas and shrugged it off like Bell to a Longhorn tackler.
“You just hit him,” Te’o said when asked about how he and the defense have prepared to stop the oversized quarterback. “He runs the same as anybody else. Obviously he’s bigger than normal running backs, but it’s football. It’s nothing different.”
No disrespect to Bell. Top 10 match-ups, Sports Illustrated covers and Heisman Trophy talk have all been relegated to “just football” for Te’o this season. In his eyes Saturday’s game in Norman is a big one only because it’s the next one.
That attitude has helped Te’o keep from being plowed over by a deluge of hype this year. Whether it can keep him from being plowed over by 250 pounds of hard-charging quarterback remains to be seen.