The No. 22 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish welcome in a real test to South Bend when they host No. 14 Oklahoma on Saturday. So far this year, the Irish (3-1) have been unable to regain the magic of last season.
While Notre Dame has won its past two games, neither win has been particularly impressive. The Sooners (3-0) will test Notre Dame on a level similar to that of Michigan.
Losing Saturday would end any chance of a return to the BCS Championship game and likely any return to a BCS bowl at all.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for:
- Fix the Offense. Notre Dame has struggled mightily on offense this season. There doesn’t seem to be anything resembling consistency. The worst of this offense comes out in the red zone where the Irish ranked 112th in the country. Notre Dame is scoring a touchdown on 50-percent of its trips inside the 20. Quarterback Tommy Rees is completing just 56-percent of his passes as well. The Irish are also struggling to run the ball, ranking in the bottom third of the country. The offense will have to have a near perfect game to overcome this Sooner defense.
- Stopping Blake Bell. Bell has only started one game, two weeks ago against Tulsa. It was a hell of a start, as he threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns. He also has the ability to run with the ball. Bell is more likely to hang in the pocket and find an open receiver, but he’ll take off if the need arises. The Irish have struggled against mobile QBs this season, and have really only faced one good QB this season (Michigan’s Devin Gardner). The Sooners will likely attack the middle of the field, which without Manti Te’o has been lackluster this season. Great play from the linebackers will go a long way towards a win for the Irish.
- More Tough Defense. Not from Notre Dame, but its opponent. The Sooners have one of the best defenses in the country. They have held opponents to an average of nine points per game and 291 yards of offense. They are 15th in the country on third downs, with Oklahoma’s opponents converting just 27-percent of the time. The good news is that the Sooners are not particularly adept generating sacks (just three this season) or turnovers (six through three games). They play tough defense that forces a lot of punts.
- Adaptation. Last week, the Irish committed to a game plan for the entire length of the game against Michigan State. What coach Brian Kelly was trying to accomplish was evident, but ultimately unsuccessful. The staff failed to adapt the game plan to account for what MSU was giving them. Against Oklahoma, Kelly and his staff have to be flexible on offense. Rees has to take what the defense gives him rather than trying to force anything against the Sooners.
While Notre Dame is 3-1, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. The Irish have had far too many close games against sub par teams like Purdue. They have only faced one quality opponent, Michigan, and that game was more one sided than the score indicated.
Oklahoma looks like a better team than Michigan, and the Sooners certainly have a better defense. Notre Dame doesn’t match-up against Oklahoma very well either.
This has the makings of a big loss for Notre Dame. The Sooners pull off the win, 35-21.
Don’t forget to follow us on twitter, @InkOnIndy.