Greetings from Oklahoma’s Memorial Stadium, where the eighth-ranked Sooners host No. 5 Notre Dame in the Irish’s biggest game in years. A win entrenches the Irish in the national title picture and sets the stage for an 11-0 squad to visit USC in a monstrous season finale, assuming the Irish take care of business against Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest, which they should easily. A loss renders the rest of the regular season largely indifferent, as Notre Dame is all but assured of going to a BCS bowl — not the title game, though — whether it’s 11-1 or 10-2.
Notre Dame is unbeaten and ranked higher, but the Sooners are 12-point favorites in Vegas, and based on talk radio out here in Oklahoma, the Sooners are expected to blow Notre Dame out of the stadium. So what has to happen for the Irish to pull off the “upset”?
1. ND’s defense has to keep the game within reach. The Irish simply don’t have the type of offense that’s going to be able to put up 30-some points against a defense like Oklahoma’s (12th in scoring defense, 15th in total defense). The Irish are second in the nation in scoring defense, as no opponent has scored more than 17 points against them. Notre Dame can win this game 17-14. It can’t win this game 31-28. Keeping Landry Jones uncomfortable in the pocket is key.
2. ND must be able to run the ball. Yes, Everett Golson fared well in his only other hostile environment, but Michigan State is no Oklahoma. There’s no way of telling how Golson will respond to the hype and pressure (he admitted it got to him at home against Michigan), especially in his first action in two weeks. The Irish offensive line, and Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood (George Atkinson III, as reported first by ESPN.com late last night, is officially inactive with the flu) will have to be able to control the clock and do the heavy lifting for the Irish. Oklahoma is allowing 138 yards per game on the ground, so it’s not an impossible task. But it’s an absolutely necessary one.
3. ND must convert in the red zone. As tackle Zack Martin said earlier in the week, 10 points in four red-zone trips isn’t going to cut it. You can escape BYU with such a performance, but not Oklahoma. That means Golson needs to make the right reads at the line of scrimmage, the tailbacks need to run within the blocking scheme, and the Irish line can’t commit any pre-snap penalties. In other words, the Irish have to be more fundamentally sound inside the 20, and punch it in a few times. And when they don’t, Kyle Brindza needs to split the uprights, something he’s failed to do twice last week. Again, you can escape BYU playing like that. Not Oklahoma.
4. ND must protect the football. This one’s always true, but it’s especially magnified against a team like Oklahoma. The Sooners are so strong on offense — averaging 52 points over its last three wins — that even with a stout defense, the Irish can’t afford to give the Sooners short fields to work with.
Of course, none of that is rocket science. It’s Notre Dame’s formula for success regardless of who the opponent is. But against a team the caliber of Oklahoma — and one playing as well as Oklahoma is right now — there simply is no margin for error. At their very best, the Irish can beat Oklahoma. Anything less, though, and all those talk radio hosts and callers might be proven right.