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September 25, 2013

Chunks could be chink in Notre Dame's armor

Through the first four weeks of the 2013 season, it’s become obvious that Notre Dame’s defense is not anywhere near as stout as last year’s version, which finished second nationally in scoring defense, seventh in total defense and 11th in rushing defense.

The Irish were miserly in the red zone last season, allowing just two rushing touchdowns in 12 regular-season games and a mere 13 touchdowns on 38 red-zone penetrations (34.2 percent) by the opposition.

The Irish have allowed nine red-zone touchdowns this season, which is 69.2 percent of last year’s total in just four games.

Notre Dame will have to be much more stout from goal line to goal line against No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0), which has taken huge chunks out of the defenses of Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa.

While those three opponents don’t strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators - Tulsa ranks 88th in total defense; ULM is 99th -- Oklahoma’s big-play capabilities under Bob Stoops is extensive.
  
“They’re very balanced,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “They run the ball extremely well, and two weekends ago, they really showed their ability to throw the football.”

Blake Bell took over for Trevor Knight at quarterback against Tulsa, and the result was a 600-yard total offense day against the Golden Hurricane without a turnover in Oklahoma’s 51-20 victory two weeks ago in Norman.

Bell threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns against Tulsa, completing eight passes of 15 yards or more. Among his 27 completions was an 82-yarder to Jaz Reynolds, 44- and 35-yarders to Sterling Shepard, a 41-yarder to Durron Neal, a 25-yarder to Jalen Saunders, and a 29-yarder to running back Roy Finch.

“Bell threw it extremely well vertically,” Kelly said. “He’s got a nice touch on the football. One week, it’s one receiver; this past (game), Sterling Shepard had eight catches. They’ve got great depth and they find their big-play receivers.”

The Sooners have an incredible 27 runs of 10 yards or more through three games. Blake Bell threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns against Tulsa, completing eight passes of 15 yards or more.

One of the reasons the Irish claimed a 30-13 victory in Norman a year ago was the Irish defense limited the Sooners to just 15 yards on 24 carries. The defense also surrendered just three completions of 20 yards. Saunders had 15 catches for 181 yards and Kenny Stills had seven for 86, but none went for touchdowns, and the Irish limited Oklahoma to just one touchdown - a one-yard run by Bell.

A couple things compound Notre Dame’s dilemma heading into Saturday’s clash between Top 25 teams. Oklahoma couldn’t run the ball on the Irish last year, and in fact, very few teams could. The Sooners didn’t have a single double-digit-yardage run against Notre Dame in 2012, but their ground game has accounted for more than 300 yards against both West Virginia and Tulsa while Notre Dame appears much more vulnerable to the ground game than a year ago.

Although the sample size is small and against a struggling Louisiana-Monroe, a star-depleted West Virginia, and a taken-a-step-back Tulsa, Oklahoma is biting off huge chunks of real estate this season.

The Sooners have an incredible 27 runs of 10 yards or more through three games. Seven of those double-digit runs have been by freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who no longer is in the starting lineup. But there are plenty of others who can carry the load, including Bell with four of his own double-digit-yardage runs.

Brennan Clay, Damien Williams, Roy Finch and Keith Ford all have contributed to the explosive ground game that ranks 16th nationally (271.7 yards per game). Against West Virginia alone, Clay had runs of 33, 34, 26 and 32 yards. Finch had a 21-yarder against ULM and a 48-yarder against Tulsa. Williams, who missed the Tulsa game for disciplinary reasons, had four double-digit-yardage runs against West Virginia. Ford had a 23-yarder against Tulsa.

Where the Sooners come back to earth is in the red zone. They’ve scored just nine touchdowns in 17 trips (52.9 percent) inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. At this rate, it’s going to be a big year for kicker Mike Hunnicutt, who already has converted eight field goals.

The Irish, meanwhile, have limited big plays in three out of four games this season. Purdue and Michigan State were held under 300 yards total offense. The Spartans didn’t have a pass play of longer than 19 yards, and just one run of 10 yards. Temple had just two plays of at least 20 yards.

The Irish will be facing their most dynamic offense of the season, perhaps even more so than the Devin Gardner-led Wolverines of Michigan. The early-season tendencies show a much more vulnerable Irish defense going up against an Oklahoma offense that is taking quite a bite out of opposing defenses.

“We have to minimize the big-chunk plays,” Kelly said. “That’s one of our goals each and every week, minimizing those big-chunk plays. We were able to do that last year (against Oklahoma). We’re going to do it this year if we want to win the football game.”





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