Bring on the Irish
This weekend, the Sooners hit the road for the first time this season to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Last year, OU lost 30-13 in Norman, but as head coach Bob Stoops recalled, the contest was much closer than the score indicated.
Some keys to that contest were turnovers and third-down conversions, both factors that once again could play a critical role in the contest’s outcome, along with finding good balance between the run and pass game.
“I thought a year ago, those are big deals in the fourth quarter,” Stoops said in reference to taking better care of the football and getting off the field defensively on third down. “Last year they made all the plays down the stretch in the last six minutes of the game and that’s what changed the game. It was a 13-13 game with six minutes to go and they make all the plays at the end.”
Defensive co-captain Corey Nelson believes this year’s team is more equipped to play with Notre Dame than last year’s.
“It all depends on just how we execute both offensively and defensively,” Nelson said. “I feel like we’re prepared, though.”
According Stoops, while several key players on both sides won’t suit up for this year’s game, in many respects, the Irish are similar to last season’s squad that reached the BCS National Championship Game.
“Their schemes are all the same,” Stoops explained. “They’ve got good athletes and are well disciplined in everything that they do. So I see them very similar, you know watching them, as they were a year ago.”
Senior co-captain Gabe Ikard said control on the line of scrimmage was a key component of the game last year and will be important yet again.
“The most important thing from last year was who controlled the line of scrimmage and that was obviously them,” Ikard said. “We didn’t run the ball well at all. They started to wear us out. That’s our focus now. Establishing and controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Fellow senior co-captain Trey Millard admits there is a little bit of a revenge factor after Notre Dame won in Norman last season. At the same time, he knows this is something the team cannot dwell upon.
“We just know that we have to come ready to play,” Millard said. “If you play emotional, and you start making mistakes off of revenge or trying to get somebody’s number, you tend to make mistakes. That’s not the type of team we want to be. We want to play more steady. Emotion is definitely going to be a part of it but you have to control it.”
Don’t Party Like It’s 1999
The last time OU traveled to South Bend was 1999, and co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel quarterbacked the team. While the Sooners were still a year away from winning a national championship, there are still plenty of lessons to be learned from Oklahoma’s last visit to the house of Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen.
“It is a great environment, great football team,” Heupel shared. “Obviously the people of Oklahoma support it, too. Our guys, on the road, are playing in big ball games and that’s why they come here.”
Of course, Heupel doesn’t have fond memories of the fourth quarter of that 1999 contest, as the Irish eventually came back for a 34-30.
“More than anything I remember leading in the third quarter by 16 and looking around and there were too many happy faces meaning there were guys who though they had this one and really realizing that we hadn’t truly learned how to compete yet for four quarters,” head coach Bob Stoops recalled.
“The realization too, I remember telling the coaches in the meetings on Monday, that they hadn’t been ahead of anybody like that on the road before. They don’t know how to handle it and we have teach them how to handle it. They need to learn how to finish games and win a game like that, but those guys hadn’t been in that situation.”
Asked today if he had learned anything from his fourth contest as Oklahoma’s head coach, Stoops recalled one decision that’s bothered him for 15 seasons.
“Well I learned not to allow one guy to rush a punt when you’re on the 50-yard line and not to second-guess myself,” he said. “I initially called punt safe and I listened to a few other guys when I shouldn’t have and to me that started all their momentum. We roughed the punter with the one-man rush we had a return on. We weren’t going anywhere because we had to fair catch it anyway. I still wake up at night on that one. You guys think I forget. I don’t forget.”
The Scheduluing Philosophy of Marquee Non-Conference Games
Asked today why Oklahoma traditionally schedules one or more “top tier” non-conference opponent, Stoops offered an explanation of the thought process he shares with Director of Athletics, Joe Castiglione.
“It’s been a philosophy of Joe Castiglione’s and mine since we got here to play one or two always really difficult non-conference schedule, challenging teams,” he said. “For the most part through the years because of the BCS rankings, we’ve always felt that if all things being equal, if we’re undefeated and someone else is undefeated and we went to Alabama like we have, we’re going to Tennessee, we’ve been to Oregon, if you go to those places and you host those kinds of teams and you beat them and all things being equal, then you got a better opportunity to get the nod in the BCS formula than if you’re not playing anybody.
“It’s worked well for us for the most part through the years and when you win those games it’s a big boost but also it’s just been Joe and my philosophy even with our fans. They’re exciting for our people to watch and to compete against and it’s good for college football so we like being a part of that. Even though there’s always the risk that you don’t win and when you don’t it sure doesn’t help your formula, the BCS formula, that’s for sure.”
Despite traveling to face a storied program in Notre Dame, Stoops insists he will not focus on this with his players because of the variety of stadiums to which the team has traveled in past years.
“We go to a lot of places, we’ve been in a lot of stadiums and they’re going to be in a lot more,” Stoops said. “So we get ready to play ball and worry about what’s between the lines on the grass and that’s all that matters. We go a lot of places.”
As a player and now a coach, co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel appreciates what it means for student-athletes to have an opportunity to play in a variety of historic venues against storied opponents like the Fighting Irish.
“I think our non-conference schedule, just in general, allow our players to compete, develop and get ready for conference play,” Heupel said. “We are always playing top-tier teams and this is no different. The kids enjoy the opportunity to go and compete against some of the best.”
Some marque road games during Stoops’ tenure include trips to Alabama, Oregon and Florida State. The next few seasons feature even more road games against notable opponents. In 2015, the Sooners will travel to Knoxville, Tenn., to face the Tennessee Volunteers, and in 2017, OU makes the trip to Columbus, Ohio, to play the Ohio State Buckeyes.
According to LB Corey Nelson, playing against high-caliber opponents at their home stadiums adds a level of excitement.
“When you go to historic places like Notre Dame, Florida State and Alabama it creates a different type of atmosphere,” Nelson said. “There’s a different type of feeling inside of the players and I’m sure the fans as well. You always want to keep your composure. I’ve been here for almost four years now and you want to keep your composure when you go to big places like that and try to remain as calm as possible so you can remain focused.”
Deep Threat – Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees
While much of last year’s Oklahoma-Notre Game was a slugfest at the line of scrimmage, head coach Bob Stoops says that the Sooners need to be prepared to be tested in the passing game, particularly if the Irish are effective setting up play-action with their ground attack.
“They’re going to put it up in every game a good number of times,” Stoops indicated. “He (Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees) throws an excellent ball, and they have confidence in their receivers going up and getting it. That’s definitely something we’re aware of and something we need to be able to defend. Some of it might have been exaggerated by the fact that Michigan State was on top of them virtually every snap. They may have felt their opportunities more that way. We’ll pick and choose when we are and when we aren’t just as they did.”
Mike Stoops also agreed with the assessment that Rees is a talented passer.
“You take away the run, he’s (Rees) good enough to hurt you,” OU’s defensive coordinator explained. “ Again, the big plays last year, the big post route off the run action. That’s what they pride themselves on and we have to be better in making sure we don’t give up big plays. I though Michigan State did a great job playing very aggressive and not giving up those chunk yardage plays.”
The Sooners’ defensive strategist knows the Irish will give OU looks that the club’s defense hasn’t seen in it’s first three games. While Notre Dame may not have changed their offensive philosophy, it doesn’t make preparing for them any easier.
“They want to control the ball, they want to run it,” Stoops concluded. “They want to play action pass because they’re such a good run team and they make you respect the run game. That’s what got us a year ago. We missed a couple hits and they kept running it and running it and finally creased us and then after they did that they hit a big pass. Again, this is a very difficult preparation. (Tommy) Rees throws a very good ball, they have two go-to receivers. They can defend the whole field and they just missed some passes a week ago.”
Coach to Cure MD
This Saturday, the OU and Notre Dame coaching staffs, as well as coaches from more than 110 FBS schools, will be wearing a Coach to Cure MD patch to raise awareness and funding for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research. It marks the sixth annual Coach to Cure MD effort by the AFCA. Fans are encouraged to donate online at www.CoachtoCureMD.org or donate $5 by texting CURE to 90999.
Saturday’s Second-Screen Options
While OU fans know the best source for in-game information, stats and exclusive commentary can be found at SoonerSports.com and SoonerSports.tv, NBC Sports will offer some exclusive video content for fans on their NBC Sports Live Extra platform at NBCSports.com/liveextra.
NBC Sports Live Extra online will feature a simulcast of the broadcast feed in full HD quality, plus one additional online-only bonus camera. The video player will include picture-in-picture capability and full DVR functionality, allowing the user to pause the live video and even review plays in “slo-mo.”Sideline reporter Alex Flanagan will provide live in-game tweets. Additionally, fans can watch in-game highlights and live coverage of halftime performances, including the performance of The Pride of Oklahoma.