NORMAN, Okla. — No Manti Te’o this time around for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but this time around the Irish host the Sooners instead of heading to Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
Defensive end Charles Tapper and OU's D-line will have to get a push and some pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees.
That means the Irish will have the crowd on their side and OU will have to overcome that in order to win a big non-conference rematch.
The most formidable challenge for the Sooners starts up front, where the O-line will be charged with the task of facing two future first round draft picks in defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.
“Very important,” said OU head coach Bob Stoops. “He’s [Nix] a lot to handle in there. You know, you’ve got to block—all those guys up front are very disruptive. To run, run the ball, or to protect the passer defending and protecting and blocking those guys is a big challenge.”
Center Gabe Ikard, too, is aware of that challenge in front of him.
“Yeah, no doubt that Nix is the best in the country,” Ikard said. “Constantly takes two guys to block him. 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 tape, and last year was certainly the biggest challenge of my season.
“So, excited to block, you know, the best in the country. He’s definitely that, so we got to prepare for them and the rest of that defense.”
The rest of that defense also includes a talented linebacking corps of Prince Shembo, Jarrett Grace, Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jaylon Smith.
Obviously, losing Te’o is a huge hole to fill, but Fox and Shembo as returning starters, plus Grace, Calabrese and Smith’s production have allowed them to do so solidly.
Grace, Te'o's replacement, leads the team with 28 total tackles, including one for loss and a pass breakup.
Fox is second on the team with 27 tackles, including three for loss, and Calabrese leads the Irish with his four tackles for loss, 26 total tackles.
Cornerback Bennett Jackson has a pick, and opposite cornerback KeiVarae Russell leads the team with four breakups, but they’ll be under pressure from OU receivers.
“They like to be real physical on the outside, on the inside, too,” said OU receiver Jalen Saunders. “We’re trying to be physical and play faster than them just come Saturday.”
Defensively, being physical up front is going to again be the key.
New D-line coach Jerry Montgomery takes his stab with the Sooners at a team that beat them up in the trenches last year.
They’ll try to change that against a powerful Notre Dame front offensively.
“That was a great motivation, especially because people doubted the defensive line,” Tapper said. “All this year they’ve been thinking we won’t probably be this good. So, we got a lot of rotation this year. Like last year they couldn’t really rotate because they kept a bunch of seniors in the game, but this year we got a great rotation so we should be fresh coming off the line every play.”
Notre Dame has averaged only 114.2 rushing yards per game over its first four contests, with Cam McDaniel’s 169 yards and two touchdowns leading the way.
Quarterback Tommy Rees’ passing ability as the Irish crease the Sooners is probably the bigger concern.
Unlike Everett Golson, he doesn’t possess the ability to beat you with his feet, but he can certainly sling it and has racked up an efficient eight touchdowns to two interceptions and more than 1,100 yards to start the season.
OU knows getting pressure on him is paramount.
“He’s a dangerous passing threat,” Tapper said. “He’s not really mobile, but he can throw that ball. He’s a great quarterback.”
And cornerback Aaron Colvin and the secondary will be feasting when he does.
“He’s a very smart player from what I’ve seen on film,” Colvin said. “It doesn’t seem like he makes a lot of mistakes, so we know that we’re going to have to be on point every play and we’re just going to have to be consistent with our play.”
Consistency on both sides of the ball and physicality up front will win this game for the Sooners.
But that’s Notre Dame’s M.O., too, and they’re pretty darn good at it.