By MURRAY EVANS
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
NORMAN, Okla. —
There’s really no way to sugarcoat it as far as the Oklahoma Sooners are concerned — quite simply, Notre Dame’s defensive line manhandled them last year.
In Notre Dame’s 30-13 win, the Fighting Irish limited the Sooners to 15 yards rushing on 24 attempts and forced Oklahoma to abandon the run game. Most of the key players on both lines are back this season as No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0) prepares for the rematch Saturday at No. 22 Notre Dame (3-1).
If the Fighting Irish - led by standout defensive linemen Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt - repeat their dominance of Oklahoma’s offensive line, it could be another long game for the Sooners, who are 1-9 all-time against Notre Dame.
“They’re led by two first-team All-American guys that are probably the best in the country at their positions,” said Oklahoma senior center Gabe Ikard, who battled Nix during last year’s game. “We know how talented they are up front but also we have a lot of confidence in our line. That’s the question and that’s what Saturday’s for, is to be able to determine if we can move those guys off the ball and kind of make some space.”
Oklahoma entered last year’s game averaging almost 200 yards rushing per game, but ended up posting the seventh-lowest rushing total in the history of its storied program. The 15 rushing yards allowed were the fewest allowed by Notre Dame against a top-10 foe since November 1966 against Southern California.
The Fighting Irish lost standout linebacker Manti Te’o to the NFL, but they’re still plenty tough on defense. Notre Dame has allowed one offensive touchdown or less in 11 of its last 17 games.
“We have to minimize the big chunk plays and that’s one of our goals each and every week,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to do that last year. We’re going to have to do it this year if we want to win the football game.”
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has a background on defense and said as a coach, he appreciates the structure, fundamentals and discipline shown by the Fighting Irish’s unit.
“You rarely see a guy that’s not in position,” Stoops said. “You can tell they’re coached well and they play hard.”
Stoops jettisoned a couple of offensive assistants during the offseason and hired Bill Bedenbaugh - known for developing physical linemen - as the Sooners’ offensive line coach.
Through three games, the Sooners’ run game has improved over last season - they’re averaging 271.7 yards per game on the ground, and posted consecutive 300-yard rushing outings against Louisiana-Monroe and West Virginia, the first time that has happened since 1997. But the big test, of course, will come in South Bend and Bedenbaugh hasn’t shied away from telling his players that.
“I told them - and it’s no disrespect to anybody that we’ve played up to this point because they are good and you have to prepare every week - but this will be the best defensive line that we’ve faced by far and possibly the best we’ll see all year,” Bedenbaugh said. “I know we’ll see some good ones, some really good ones, but you look at their defensive line across the board and there’s not a weak guy and that doesn’t happen very often in college football.”
If the Sooners are able to establish an effective rushing attack, it figures to potentially open up passing opportunities for quarterback Blake Bell, who’s coming off a 413-yard, four-touchdown passing outing in his first career start, a 51-20 win over Tulsa.
To do that, the Sooners will need to neutralize Nix and Tuitt, who combined for 12 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and two pass breakups in a 17-13 win over Michigan State last Saturday. Ikard called Nix “the best in the country” among defensive linemen.
“It constantly takes two guys to block him,” Ikard said.
“I saw on Saturday against Michigan State how active he is. He’s one of those guys that you can just tell how strong and talented he is on the tape. Last year was certainly the biggest challenge of my season.”
Stoops said he expects the Sooners to run the ball better against Notre Dame than they did last season. Of course, they couldn’t get much worse.
“We are blocking better, identifying who we’re blocking in a stronger and better and more consistent way,” he said.
“And we’ve been more persistent in trying to run the football. Hopefully we’ll be able to have some success doing it.”