21 and Under ClubWhen Notre Dame struggles -- and thanks to the Brian Kelly regime, "struggling" is now defined as being an ugly 3-1 with 15 wins in your last 17 games -- pundits abound with theories on how to better the Irish. What it takes to win is over-analyzed, ad nauseum.
You really want to know how Notre Dame can beat Oklahoma Saturday? Hold them to 21 points or fewer in regulation. Period. Because ND can't beat anyone decent when its opponent scores more than 21 points over 60 minutes.
Thirteen foes have hit for more than 21 points vs. the Irish in the 43-game Kelly era. Notre Dame has beaten two of them: Air Force 59-33 in 2011 and Purdue 31-24 earlier this month.
(Kudos to the Irish for pulling out said victory in West Lafayette, because as bad as Purdue will prove to be this season, the Boilermakers played quite well that evening. On the other hand, the 2011 Falcons trailed 59-19 with four minutes remaining, their "33 points" were cosmetic and irrelevant.)
But when the Irish hold an opponent to 21 points or fewer? 29-1. The lone loss an 18-14 offensive-optional contest in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl vs. Florida State.
If it's a shoot-out Saturday, history suggests Notre Dame will be apologizing for a 3-2 record heading into its Shamrock Series showdown vs. Arizona State.
How about a third?Notre Dame's offense has struggled vs. quality defenses for the majority of the 43-game Kelly era. But an especially troubling trend dating back to the beginning of the 2011 season illustrates the team's inability to score more than two offensive touchdowns vs. quality foes. (Scoring defense rank in parenthesis):
Two offensive touchdowns or fewer: 2011: South Florida (37), Pittsburgh (38), USC (45), Boston College (43), Stanford (30), Florida State (4); 2012: Purdue (87), Michigan State (9), Michigan (20), Stanford (11), BYU (3), Pittsburgh/regulation (23), USC (40), Alabama (1); 2013: Michigan (45), Michigan State (15).
More than two offensive touchdowns: 2011: Michigan (6), Michigan State (10), Purdue (63), Air Force (72), Navy (78), Wake Forest (65), Maryland (102); 2012: Navy (54), Miami (82), Oklahoma (50), Boston College (74), Wake Forest (91); 2013: Temple (71), Purdue (93).
(The outliers are Michigan and Michigan State, games played back-to-back in 2011.)
Just three times in the last two seasons have the Irish scored more than two touchdowns vs. a defense that finished among the nation's Top 50, and just once since September 2011. Of note, that game was at Oklahoma last season, though the third touchdown occurred to seal the victory with 1:36 remaining, and only after the Sooners turned it over on downs in desperation at their own 20-yard line.
Can Notre Dame post three touchdowns vs. the ninth-ranked, albeit untested defense of the early-season 2013 Sooners?
A troubling trend would be broken if they do.
Tackle or Trouble"There's going to be some completions. You've got to minimize the big plays off of that attack. You've got to be sound and fundamental and contained. You can't give up easy runs. I think that's really what it comes down to; when the quarterback is running the football, you've got to make sure that you're minimizing their ability to get big plays."
Kelly's comments regarding his team's 2012 defensive game plan and the likelihood of repeat aspects this weekend aren't a surprise: the Irish can't match up man for man vs. the Sooners skill position players -- they barely did last week vs. Michigan State, save for a terrible quarterback.
Oklahoma completed 36 passes in last year's Irish upset in Norman. Aside from one missed tackle in the fourth, and two on the opening drive, Notre Dame's secondary was nearly perfect in executing its plan: allow the catch, then punish.
Cornerbacks Keivarae Russell and Bennett Jackson combined for 17 tackles. The Irish safeties? Just seven stops. They had very little to clean up playing two-deep. The plan was to keep passes short, and make a play along the way that would turn a long drive into 3, or 0 points -- it worked to perfection.
(A better indication of the plan: Bob Diaco's defense had just three pass breakups: one by Louis Nix, one by Dan Fox that led to Manti Te'o's signature interception, and one by Zeke Motta -- but none by a cornerback on 52 pass attempts.)
It'll be similar this weekend. The Irish secondary absolutely has to tackle after the catch.
"Crisp and Clean tackling," said Kelly. "Expectations are clear."
Yes, they are.
Formidable Four?Film review shows Louis Nix doing his job. It shows Stephon Tuitt's improvement from Week 1-2 JAG status (aka, "Just a Guy") to Week Four impact player. It shows how steady Sheldon Day is each week and how Prince Shembo has played "well," too.
But let's not kid ourselves. Notre Dame's front four has not been the destructive, title-chasing unit it was last year through four games and beyond. Its lack of depth is in stark contrast to last season when it was the program's strength and chief reason the Irish reached 12-0.
They'll have to reclaim that throne tomorrow, because Oklahoma is now a physical offense that plans to punish teams via the run.
"Well, ideally you'd love to be able to be the deepest on the field and stop the run with even numbers," said Kelly. "We were able to do that last year most of the time, but we have to be prepared for all situations. If the numbers are fair, that means you're able to do a lot of things defensively. We'll have to see how that plays out."
Notre Dame would be much better off if it doesn't have to do too much defensively. They've had sporadic success with the blitz and struggled with nickel and dime coverage situations as they search for the right personnel for both pass defense packages. The Irish defeated the Spartans last week on third down largely because Michigan State quarterbacks missed open receivers -- hurried or not, Connor Cook and Andrew Maxwell can't beat anyone of consequence.
Blake Bell could struggle in that regard as well, but when it's 3rd-and-5 yards or less Saturday, it might be advantage Bell-Dozer. Delayed quarterback draws will be tough to stop and man-to-man matchups inside could be problematic.
"The bottom line is, the skill that they have creates so many problems for you down the field that you have to look at how you're going to play this team from so many different perspectives," Kelly said.
It's a quandary that's mitigated if Notre Dame's front four of Nix, Tuitt, Day and Shembo play to their pre-season billing.
Season Saver?Notre Dame's off-season from hell has meandered into the hazy purgatory of a 3-1 September. The Irish had their chance to make a national statement at Michigan and instead face-planted. They had a chance to look good vs. a lesser squad in Purdue -- again on national television -- and failed to match their longtime rival's intensity. The game was closer than it should have been.
They beat Michigan State, but looked shaking doing so, at least offensively. And defensively? Have you seen the Spartans on offense? It's offensive.
Saturday vs. the Sooners is Notre Dame's chance to leap back into the national conversation. Win and repeat that feat next week in Dallas -- in prime time again vs. Arizona State -- and Notre Dame is no worse than #14 in the nation heading into its ensuing mid-October bye.
USC in prime time follows. A national stage yet again.
Win vs. the Trojans and a top 10-11 ranking is the likely result as the Irish ease into the soft underbelly of their schedule for the final month. Then as the November rain pours around them and other contenders fall by the wayside, a 10-1 Notre Dame team should rank among the nation's top 6-7 teams heading into a season-ending battle with Stanford.
But the way Notre Dame has played to date, the above is nothing more than the theoretical pipe dream of someone not ready to let go of what he saw in 2012.
To make the rest of the season matter, nationally, not just in terms of program growth and player development, Notre Dame has to win Saturday. Local fans and national pundits alike don't believe they can.
I have no idea -- but I have no idea about the Sooners, either. They've proven only they're better than bad teams.
I think the Irish will answer the bell, keep it close, and when it's close, Kelly seems to count.