NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Tommy Rees and the offense dug the hole, and the defense never could pull the Irish from out of the pit.
A pair of turnovers within the first minute of the game led directly to a 14-point deficit, and a third interception in the first half preceded an 88-yard touchdown drive as No. 14 Oklahoma (4-0) started fast and finished its business efficiently en route to a 35-21 victory over No. 22 Notre Dame (3-2).
“You spot a great team like Oklahoma 14 points, you’re putting yourself in a tough situation,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
The loss snapped Notre Dame’s 10-game home winning streak and gave the Sooners just their second victory over the Irish in 11 tries. The previous victory by Oklahoma over the Irish came in 1956. Notre Dame had won seven in a row against the Sooners, including last season’s 30-13 victory in Norman.
Notre Dame’s ground game accounted for 220 yards - its most this season - including an 80-yard touchdown run by George Atkinson III that pulled the Irish to within 21-14 early in the second half. But a pair of Mike Hunnicutt field goals and a 54-yard scoring toss from Blake Bell to Sterling Shepard never allowed the Irish to come all the way back from the early hole.
For just the third time in 28 games under Brian Kelly, the Irish lost despite holding a slight edge (eight yards) on the ground.
“We all take pride in it together,” said Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, who said that there’s “still a little bit of a sore spot” from squandering a 16-point lead to the Irish 14 years earlier in his previous visit to Notre Dame Stadium.
Linebacker Eric Striker nailed Rees from behind on the third snap of the game, and linebacker Corey Nelson picked off the “fumbled pass” and returned it 24 yards for the score. On the first play of Notre Dame’s very next possession, Rees tried to squeeze a pass to TJ Jones on a crossing route. Cornerback Aaron Colvin helped bat the football in the air, and linebacker Frank Shannon intercepted it.
Four plays later - and just 2:45 into the game - Damien Williams raced 11 yards for the touchdown and the uphill battle for the Irish was on.
“Obviously, you can’t spot a team 14 points like that right off the bat,” Rees said. “It’s tough to fight back, but I’m proud of the way we did. The start hurt us in the long run.”
Thanks in large part to several 3rd- and 4th-and-short stops defensively, the Irish hung in there, pulling to within 14-7 on a six-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Jones. The score was set up by freshman Tarean Folston’s 36-yard run.
But when Jones and DaVaris Daniels were confused on a route with the Irish at the Oklahoma 24 midway through the second quarter, Rees was intercepted for the third time in the first half, this time by strong safety Quentin Hayes.
Ten plays and 88 yards later, Bell - who finished 22-of-30 for 232 yards, two touchdown passes and zero interceptions - found Lacoltan Bester for a 26-yard score and a 21-7 halftime lead.
The Irish managed to swing the momentum several times in the first half, rushing for 112 yards and converting 3-of-7 third downs. But they still found themselves right back where they were after the poor start.
Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin stayed with the ground attack. Atkinson finished with 148 yards - a career high - as the Irish remained in contention. But a 40-yard kickoff return following Atkinson’s long touchdown run led to a Hunnicutt field goal, and a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end Troy Niklas to make it 27-21 was turned back into a two-touchdown deficit just 1:46 later.
“I wanted to be in two tight ends and I wanted to run the football,” said Kelly of his intended approach, which included a short-yardage package for senior signalcaller Andrew Hendrix. “I wanted to run play-action and I wanted to be able to control the game that way.
“But we got down, threw the ball away, had sacks, and those aren’t what we do. That’s not going to be our prescription for success. You can’t turn the football over the way we did. If you take care of the football, we might be in overtime right now.”
Oklahoma had 25 first downs to Notre Dame’s 12. The Irish failed to create a turnover, which gives them just four in five games.
The second loss of the season leaves no margin for error as it pertains to a BCS game for the Irish. They would have to win their final seven games just to have a slight chance to be considered.
“Don’t really care about that stuff,” Kelly said. “That’s for you guys to talk about. I’ve got a football team here that we’re trying to develop and work with. You guys can have your own comments and decide what that means, and you guys can put us in whatever bowl you want.”