Notre Dame Football: Irish Defense Is Ready to Handle Oklahoma QB Blake Bell

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2013

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 21:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (center) moves onto the field with his team before taking on the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 21, 2013 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 17-13.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Notre Dame's defense was great last season—great enough to drag it to the BCS National Championship Game—and despite the loss of Manti Te'o (among others), it was expected to enjoy similar success in 2013.

Four games into the season, things haven't gone exactly according to plan. The Irish defense hasn't been bad by any reasonable stretch, but relative to expectation, it has been woefully disappointing.

Michigan, which moved the ball for just 4.01 yards per play at Connecticut last week, racked up 460 total yards and 6.39 per play against the Irish.

In a tight victory over Purdue, Notre Dame allowed the Boilermakers to rack up a season-high 4.74 yards per playalmost a full yard more than it recorded against FCS Indiana State.

Hosting Michigan State last week was just what the doctor ordered, as Notre Dame was able to stifle an offense that often stifles itself. With Blake Bell and the Oklahoma Sooners heading to South Bend, spirits are finally at high.

Notre Dame's defense is ready for its close-up. 

Like Notre Dame's defense, Oklahoma's offense is coming off its best performance of the season. After struggling in their first two games, the Sooners replaced Trevor Knight with Bell, who invigorated the offense and threw four touchdowns against Tulsa.

But also like Notre Dame's defense, Oklahoma's offense had its best performance against a poor opponent. Michigan State might have the worst offense in the Big Tenand one of the worst in all BCS conferenceswhile Tulsa allowed 34 points to Bowling Green.

Bell provides a beacon of hope for OU, which couldn't get anything going in its first two games.

Sep 14, 2013; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Blake Bell (10) reacts after the victory against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Especially after watching Maryland smother West Virginia, the Sooners' win against the Mountaineers looks pretty awful. Bell coming in and helping them hang 52 the following week was a much-needed tonic for that game.

Still, considering how bad Knight looked in the first two games, it's important to remember one salient fact: He still won the job out of camp.

Bell was pitted against—and favored over—a quarterback who struggled mightily and wasn't able to win. Playing well against Tulsa doesn't make you John Elway, and now Bell has to make his first career road start on the sport's most hallowed ground.

Last year, in front of a home crowd, Oklahoma mustered just 13 points in a blowout loss against the Irish. Notre Dame's defense was better last season, sure, but no more than Oklahoma's offense was under Landry Jones.

Assuming that each unit regressed equally—which can't be exactly true, but seems fairly accurate—how could this new Oklahoma offense be expected to fare better on the road? Without the support of Jones under center? Without the city of Norman at its back?

Are the Sooners really supposed to excel?

Oklahoma's strengths don't exactly align with Notre Dame's weakness, either. The Sooners want to run the ball to set up Bell's throws by making Notre Dame respect its play action.

But the Irish have been stout against the run this year, ceding just 3.69 yards per carry. That number shrinks to 2.80 in the past two games against Michigan State and Purdue.

The place to attack Notre Dame is in its secondary, not its front seven; but the place Oklahoma attacks is the front seven, not the secondary. And even if the Irish's defensive backfield has regressed, it's still leaps and bounds better than Tulsa's.

Bell will not find such easy goings in South Bend.