The Big 12 game with the most potential impact on the conference race is taking place in Manhattan, Kan., this weekend with Kansas State hoping to hold on to its first-place standing and pick off another from its all-comers' list when Tommy Tuberville's 14th-ranked Red Raiders of Texas Tech roll into town. But the biggest game in the country will be in Norman, Okla., where the Big 12's Oklahoma Sooners will go up against fifth-ranked and unbeaten Notre Dame, the team that has bullied OU and broken the hearts of Sooner fans more than any other.
It's hard to believe that Oklahoma and Notre Dame, two of the most decorated and respected brands in the college football game, have played only nine times before now. Notre Dame has won eight of them, including all four games that have been at what is now Gaylord Family-OU Memorial Stadium. Fans of my generation will recall that it was Notre Dame that swept down the plains to Norman in mid-November of 1957 and handed the Sooners a 7-0 loss that ended their remarkable 47-game winning streak, a mark that may never again be achieved.
Ready for another crazy twist and turn in history tied to the Oklahoma-Notre Dame series? The Fighting Irish were the last team to beat the Sooners in September 1953, before they began their 47-game streak. Oklahoma's lone victory in the nine previous games between the two legendary programs came in 1956, 40-0 at Notre Dame, in the same year that the Sooners went on to win their third of seven national championships.
Notre Dame brings a 7-0 record and a top-five national ranking into the game. It is the best start to a season by the Fighting Irish in a decade. The Irish are winning largely on the back of one of the best defenses in the country this season. Notre Dame ranks second in the nation in scoring defense, giving up a paltry 9.4 points a game. It's not only been difficult for Notre Dame opponents to score, but also to run and pass the ball, The Irish are sixth in total defense and are 14th against the pass and 15th against the run.
As outstanding as the Notre Dame defense has played this year, however, Oklahoma poses the biggest test thus far for the Irish. The Sooners' numbers on offense are of the same caliber as the excellence Notre Dame has shown on defense, which is the critical matchup that will end up deciding the 10th game in the series on Saturday.
In Notre Dame's seven wins this season, the Fighting Irish have not had to face an offensive attack as balanced as what Oklahoma will hit them with. Behind fifth-year senior Landry Jones, OU comes into the game ranked fifth in scoring, 34th in rushing and 22nd in passing yardage. Boib Stoops' Sooners are 17th in the country in total offense.
What the Sooners have that their gold-helmeted opponents don't is a pretty good defense under coordinator Mike Stoops to complement the high-scoring Oklahoma offense. In building a 5-1 record, their only loss by five points to No. 3-ranked Kansas State, the Sooners have the nation's ninth-best passing defense and are 15th in total defense. The Notre Dame offense prefers to run the ball but lacks consistency in sustaining long drives. OU has had some trouble this season stopping teams that run the ball well, but the Sooners did have success shutting down the Texas running game primarily because their offense had built up a big lead that effectively took away the Longhorn running game.
The Irish don't score that many points (25.9 a game), so it is good their defense yields less than that. Four of Notre Dame's seven wins have been by seven or fewer points. Chances are very good that this will be a low scoring game, by Big 12 standards. The Sooners are 57-2 under Bob Stoops in Norman when they hold their opponents under 20 points.
That begs the question:: Can Notre Dame generate enough offense to outscore Oklahoma. I think not. Oklahoma wins, staking its claim as the best one-loss team in college football this season and giving Stoops his 145th victory at OU, tying him with the great Bud Wilkinson. Game prediction: Oklahoma 27, Notre Dame 17
Five keys to the game
- Oklahoma has scored 98 percent of the time this season when the Sooners reach the opponent's red zone, tied for No. 1 in the country. Notre Dame is the country's second-best team in red-zone defensive efficiency. Something has to give here.
- The Oklahoma offensive line vs. Notre Dame's All-American linebacker Manti Te'o and the Fighting Irish defense. Can the Sooners give Landry Jones enough protection to find and hook up with his talented arsenal of receivers?
- If the game comes down to special teams play, Oklahoma is the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to rank in the top-six in both kickoff returns (3rd - 31.2 return average) and punt returns (6th - 17.9 return average).
- The Fighting Irish have not yielded a rushing touchdown in the last 38 quarters. OU has 20 rushing touchdowns this season, 15 combined from QB Blake Bell and RB Damien Williams.
- Notre Dame has not given up a first-quarter touchdown this season. Oklahoma has outscored its opponents 54-16 in the first quarter. The Sooners' most productive quarters have been the second and third, in which they have scored 164 points while holding their opponents to 35 total points.
Other Big 12 Games This Weekend (Week 9)
(Projected winner in bold face)
Texas Tech @ Kansas State
Texas @ Kansas
TCU @ Oklahoma State
Baylor @ Iowa State
Last week: 4-1
For the season: 40-9 (.816)
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