Behind enemy lines: Sooners

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In Part I of our Behind Enemy Lines series prior to Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame, Tim O'Malley of Irish Eyes asks Joey Helmer of Sooners Illustrated for some insider scoop on No. 8 Oklahoma.

Tim O'Malley: Oklahoma has scored 156 points in its last three games. Besides porous defense, what's helped the Sooners offense click after two early-season games of intermittent struggles?

Joey Helmer: The main reason the Sooner offense has clicked of late is simply because all the moving parts have finally come together. Quarterback Landry Jones is becoming more familiar with new receivers Justin Brown, Sterling Shepard, Jalen Saunders, Trey Metoyer and the rest of the crew around veteran Kenny Stills. They've utilized their two biggest threats out of the backfield in running back Damien Williams and fullback Trey Millard in more effective ways.  

And the Belldozer package with backup quarterback Blake Bell has been efficient as always. Not to mention an offensive line that had to adapt to two unexpected starters at the beginning of the season is finally fully meshing. All of this equates to a more fluid offense and big time numbers.

O'Malley: Bob Stoops is an impossible 79-4 at home in his Sooners tenure. What's been the consistent force behind such home field dominance through four-plus recruiting cycles and coordinator changes? What did Kansas State do to control the contest earlier this season in a rare Norman victory? 

Helmer: It's hard to pinpoint a certain reason Stoops' teams been so good at home other than they're just really comfortable playing at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The Sooners haven't had a lot of big time match-ups at home in recent days, but when they have, they've normally shown up, and that's a testament to preparation for than anything.  

As for the Kansas State game, it was really quite simple. The Sooners turned the ball over at three key times. Jones coughed up a fumble that led to a touchdown. The Belldozer fumbled on the 1-yard line when the Sooners were going in to score and, later in the game, with OU leading 13-10 and seemingly in full control late in the third quarter, Jones threw an awful pick that set up K-State for the go-ahead score. Turnovers crushed the Sooners in that contest, and Notre Dame should use a carbon copy of that contest if they hope to escape out of Norman undefeated.

O'Malley: The Irish boast one of the nation's best red zone defenses and haven't allowed a rushing touchdown since mid-November 2011. What will decide this strength vs. strength battle between a front seven that refuses to yield and Oklahoma's Bell-Dozer package?

Helmer: I mentioned one of the two guys already that makes this Belldozer package go. That's Millard. The other guy who people don't talk too much about is fullback Aaron Ripkowski. He's opened up some of the biggest holes for Bell in the short-yardage goal line set, and the Irish will have to find ways to get off those two's blocks as well as the rest of the line's to get to Bell. The Sooners will undoubtedly come at the Irish with this formation as they have other teams this year.

The battle for the Notre Dame front seven doesn't stop there, however. In order to win it, they'll also have to contain Millard and the rising running back Brennan Clay, along with Dominique Whaley by staying fundamentally sound and filling their gaps. It's really going to be a battle of will power who wins this match-up.

O'Malley: Notre Dame's pass efficiency defense ranks a stunning No. 8 nationally, though it's faced just two pass-first offenses and receives ample aid from a dominant pass rush. How will the Sooners passing game look to challenge a secondary made up of three converted offensive players and one veteran senior? 

Helmer: One of the biggest things the Sooner offense has talked about is how sound Notre Dame is in not allowing the big play down the field. But the Sooners have the playmakers to try to stretch the field with Stills, Brown and the rest of their receiving corps. Look for them to take their shots at times, but also to use slip screens and such to keep the Irish honest along the perimeter.

Jones will throw a number of safe passes in this contest, and Oklahoma will also slide Williams and Millard out of the backfield as part of those. In short, Jones will use a number of his weapons in safe situations while also mixing in deep shots from time to time.

O'Malley: Is the No. 46 ranking of Oklahoma's rush defense misleading? Or could the stubborn Irish running game turn this into a heavyweight slugfest rather than a track meet they can't afford to enter?

Helmer: It is somewhat misleading because many times a lot of the chunks of yardage the Sooners have given up have been in situations where they've had games under control. A better statistic to look at is rushing S&P, per Football Outsiders. In that, which adjusts for game situations (i.e. when games are out of reach, backups are in, etc.) the Sooners rank seventh in the country in rushing defense with a 136.3 efficiency. So, they've actually been quite good in defending the rush.  

That said, the one team they've faced with a very similar offensive philosophy (rush first) to Notre Dame--that's Kansas State--gave them all kinds of fits. Quarterback Collin Klein and running back John Hubert torched the Sooners for 223 yards on the ground in that game. So, the Irish will try to use running back Theo Riddick and the rest of their horses to grind this game out and have similar results. And if the Sooners can't load the box and shut it down, Notre Dame could turn this into a grind fest and keep the electric Sooner offense off the field. That would clearly be the best case scenario for the visitors.

To read Part II of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where Tim answers five questions from Joey, Click Here.

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

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