Behind Enemy Lines: Fighting Irish

In Part II of our Behind Enemy Lines series prior to Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame, Joey Helmer of Sooners Illustrated asks Tim O'Malley of Irish Eyes for some insider scoop on No. 5 Notre Dame.

Joey Helmer: Notre Dame's MO is undoubtedly to hit teams in the mouth, running the ball 100 more times than it has passed it so far this season, but teams that typically come into Norman and leave victoriously during the Bob Stoops era have to be able to throw the ball effectively. How capable is the sophomore Everett Golson of doing that on a much improved Sooner secondary?

Tim O'Malley: Though Notre Dame's much more effective running than passing (it's not close) it's notable that the offense is not a classic run-first attack. The Irish often throw 15-plus passes in the first half, then adjust and settle into the running game -- it's been the case when ahead (14-3 vs. Michigan State, 10-0 vs. Michigan, 13-3 vs. Miami) and behind (10-3 Stanford, 14-7 BYU). 

As you can see from those halftime scores, the Irish don't light up the scoreboard, but neither do their foes, a reality that allows the Irish to run often throughout the decisive second half. Golson has been forced to pass twice, first against Purdue when the Irish couldn't move the ball on the ground (hitting 21 of 31) then against Michigan State to lend balance (completing 14 of 32). The key for Golson is hitting what head coach Brian Kelly calls, "chunk plays." Golson won't pick apart a solid defense, but his mobility and arm make downfield throws possible if the Irish can find success running as well.

He was at his best vs. Miami in Soldier Field, passing for 186 yards in the first half while rushing for 51 more on six carries. The Hurricanes defense, however, is light years away from Oklahoma's. 

Helmer: If there is one playmaker on the offensive side of the ball the Sooners must look out for, who is it and what makes him so dangerous?

O'Malley: Senior tight end Tyler Eifert is the nation's best, and one of the best in a continuous 40-year run of NFL talent at the position in South Bend. He lines up detached as a tight end, in the slot, solo to the boundary as the team's "W" receiver, and wide to the field side with another option slotted inside. Sooner fans should note his boundary alignment and if the coverage appears to be press man, as the Irish quarterbacks are taught to throw 6'6" 255-pound athlete the fade route in this scenario. 

In my opinion, Eifert is tougher to cover inside where he excels using his body vs. safeties and speed vs. linebackers. He's the most targeted receiver on the team (37 through seven games) and has drawn four pass interference penalties. 

Helmer: All the talk in Norman this week about Notre Dame has centered around Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and his ridiculous senior season, which has featured a team-leading 69 tackles and four interceptions, among other production. What kind of impact will he have on this game and how much trouble will he give Landry Jones and the Sooner offense?

O'Malley: Prior to 2012, I felt Te'o was a very good, run-stuffing linebacker. He entered the season with no interceptions, no fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, and very little presence as a pass rusher. He's since accounted for eight turnovers in seven games while forcing four others with delayed blitzes vs. opposing quarterbacks. 

Te'o's greatest strength remains his diagnoses of misdirection pass plays, especially in the screen game, an offensive weapon he's nearly eradicated from opposing game plans as a result (though the Irish cornerbacks can be had on bubble screens to the outside). While Te'o formerly struggled to cover 'backs and tight ends in space, its evolved into a true strength, one that has shorn up what used to be an Irish defensive weakness and greatly aided their 2nd and 3rd down pass defense. Te'o never comes off the field, defensively. 

Helmer: The Fighting Irish feature the nation's No. 15 rushing defense and haven't allowed a rushing touchdown all year, but it's probably safe to say they haven't seen the caliber of ground game the Sooners have when the two meet Saturday. What will they do in order to shut down running back Damien Williams, fullback Trey Millard and contain the Belldozer package?

O'Malley: Notre Dame has faced primarily rushing teams this season, and if not for Blake Bell, I'd bet a hefty sum Oklahoma would fail in its attempts to cross the goal via the ground. What the Irish could struggle with defensively is Oklahoma's balance and myriad playmakers -- a group that could spread the Irish a bit more than have power rushing attacks from Michigan State (one-dimensional) and Stanford (two threats with TE and RB, but nothing to warrant on the perimeter). 

The Irish destroyed Michigan's rushing attack largely because quarterback Denard Robinson couldn't beat them through the air -- Notre Dame inexplicably picked off five consecutive Michigan passes…in the first half. 

The Irish look to stop the run first, but full focus on that task isn't an option this Saturday in Norman. If Oklahoma hits the Irish vertically through the air, it will inevitably open up running lanes for Williams and present the reality of a Belldozer nightmare, and the first rushing score allowed by Bob Diaco's defense since mid-November 2011 (that in a blowout win against lowly Maryland). 

Oklahoma's running game inside the 10 vs. Notre Dame's rush defense is a classic strength vs. strength battle, as Diaco's defensive front has yielded just eight rushing scores -- and but one with less than a 17-point lead at the time -- since Oct. 23, 2010.

Helmer: Oklahoma hasn't had much success all-time against Notre Dame, losing eight of the nine contests played between the two tradition-rich powers. How much talk has there been about that around South Bend this week and how much does history factor into The Irish's belief that they can win this game?

O'Malley: Very little, because Irish fans have been burned by several seasons of losing big to heavily favored teams. Some Notre Dame faithful are pointing to an October 26 game at #11 Florida State in 2002 for inspiration: the Irish entered 7-0 and ranked #6, but were slated as 11-point underdogs nonetheless. 

Behind quarterback Carlyle Holiday, Notre Dame used an early score and dominant defensive effort to jump to a 34-10 fourth quarter lead vs. a Seminoles team that had lost just four times at Doak Campbell Stadium over 14 years (similar to Stoops' mark of 79-4).  

Unfortunately for Irish fans, Chris Rix isn't taking snaps for the Sooners.

A win Saturday would remove all doubts regarding the Irish, both nationally and lingering in South Bend. 

To go back and read Part I of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where Joey answered five questions from Tim, Click Here.

Joey Helmer is the publisher of Tim O'Malley is the publisher of Top Stories