Oklahoma vs. Notre Dame: 10 Things We Learned from Irish's Loss
Today's loss to Oklahoma doesn't end Notre Dame's season, but it does put an end to any fading hopes Notre Dame fans had of seeing their Irish play in the BCS National Championship Game for a second-straight season.
Depending on how the Irish respond to the added adversity that comes with a 3-2 record, it may even put a damper on the chances for Notre Dame to play in any BCS game come January.
In what many saw as Notre Dame's first test against a national power, the Irish came up well short of the expected mark. So what does this loss tell us about the future of the 2013 Fighting Irish? What can the coaches, players and fans take away from today's loss against Oklahoma?
Here's our list of 10 things we learned about Notre Dame in its loss at the hands of the Sooners.
Passing Lanes Are Tricky
There's going to be plenty of breakdown of Tommy Rees' performance against Oklahoma here, but let's get started with one of the obvious momentum killers Notre Dame saw against the Sooners.
Tommy Rees isn't a big guy, and by that, we mean in pretty much every way. He's of average build and of average height. That lack of size means that Rees isn't looking over the top of the offensive and defensive scrum going on in front of him as he drops back to pass.
Today, we saw that Rees was often unable to loft the ball over the line from within the pocket, and the result was a half-dozen deflected passes by the Oklahoma d-line.
Rees threw three picks against the Sooners, and two of those passes were deflected at the line of scrimmage. Rees needs to develop a better sense of the passing lanes through the d-line if his aerial attack is ever going to improve.
Andrew Hendrix Is Not Very Effective
When Rees struggled today (which was often), we got the chance to see a run-option QB come in to try and spark a little mojo on the Notre Dame offense. Much like the role Rees played last season for Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix came into the game today in an effort to right a listing ship on offense.
Unfortunately, Hendrix is an inexperienced quarterback that, while quick, wasn't quick enough to to shake the Oklahoma defense.
Hendrix brings more of a run game to the table than Rees, but opponents know exactly what Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin are planning as soon as Andrew trots out onto the field. Despite taking a half-dozen snaps, Hendrix threw only one pass (which fell incomplete). His five rushes on the day netted just 10 yards, and he was a complete non-factor against Oklahoma.
Unless he's being used for the sole purpose of giving Rees a breather, the best place for Hendrix is on the sideline, learning the offense.
Offense Needs to Play with the Lead
You can effectively lump nearly every college football offense into one of two categories: grind it out and quick strike. Notre Dame definitely doesn't have the latter.
While certainly capable of moving the ball quickly down the field at times, that's not the go-to mentality for the Irish this season. Rather, Notre Dame's lack of superstar talent at the offensive skill positions leads Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin toward a more conservative, cautious approach to play-calling.
That's not always a bad thing. We are, after all, talking about college football players prone to the mistakes of youth. A slow and steady pace can eliminate a number of those mistakes (or, as we saw today, sometimes not). The problem arises when such a team falls behind early.
Notre Dame spotted Oklahoma 14 points in the first three minutes and was faced with perpetually chasing the Sooners. The Irish just don't have that come-from-behind ability this season. Even though the Irish were capable of putting up points and moving the ball, there really wasn't a sense of urgency until very late in the fourth quarter.
By that time, Notre Dame was too far behind with too few offensive weapons to make it much of a game.
The Defense Is Making Strides
Notre Dame's defense has received more than its fair share of criticism so far this season. That doesn't mean that it's all bad for the Irish on that side of the ball, though.
Sure, the defense lost some star talent after last season, but with players like Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Ben Councell, the Irish should be more than up to the task of defending most teams in the FBS.
We started to see some of that promise today against Oklahoma's run game. Although ND gave up a whopping 212 yards on the ground, the Irish forced Oklahoma to spread the ball around quite a bit to maintain any rhythm. Blake Bell was held to 59 yards, and the Irish gave up only one rushing touchdown to the Sooners.
It's also becoming clear that teams that wish to move the ball via the ground game against Notre Dame will need to attack the outside; super haus Louis Nix is gobbling up ball-carriers who dare venture into the defensive line.
More Penalties, More Problems
Notre Dame fans are used to seeing a lot of gold. Unfortunately, they're also getting used to seeing a lot of yellow, too.
As much as Notre Dame benefited from penalties against Michigan State last week, the Irish were absolutely hounded by the officials against Oklahoma. Notre Dame committed eight penalties for 77 yards against the Sooners, but what's worse, several came on critical third downs that keep the ball in the hands of the boys from Norman.
One of the most critical late penalties came against Notre Dame's Ben Councell who was flagged (and correctly ejected) for targeting. Councell will also miss the first half of Notre Dame's game against Arizona State.
In a roundabout way, this ties in with the turnover problems: Self-inflicted wounds are the worst kind but should be the easiest to fix. Now if the Irish could actually fix them...
Pass Reads Proving Difficult
One of the major problems for Notre Dame against Oklahoma was the inability to make pre-play adjustments to the Sooners' motion.
After the first few full drives for Oklahoma, it became apparent that the passing game would mostly consist of short dump offs from Blake Bell. A lot of the room created by the receivers was thanks to pre-snap motion—motion to which Notre Dame failed to adjust most of the afternoon.
While Bell's 22-of-30 completion mark looks impressive, he averaged only 7.7 yards per attempt. That's a low enough number to clue in any defensive coordinator to the m.o. of the opposing defense.
For some strange reason, the Fighting Irish seemed unwilling to trust their eyes. Most of Oklahoma's backfield motion telegraphed a short pass play. Still, linebackers remained cemented in their pre-snap positions, giving Oklahoma's receivers plenty of room to work on the edges.
Defensive Perimeter Vulnerable
That brings us to our next lesson for the Irish: The defensive perimeter is vulnerable.
While it might be easy to place all the blame on the corners, like Bennett Jackson, the plain truth is that Notre Dame's inability to adjust to Oklahoma's short pass game left the Irish corners out on an island, often being forced to decide between two receivers.
That made Blake Bell's decision-making very, very easy.
Atkinson Is Electric
Don't worry, Irish faithful. It's not all bad news.
One of the good things we learned about Notre Dame is that the future of the run game looks bright with junior George Atkinson III lined up in the backfield. Atkinson was, at the very least, impressive today with 148 yards on 14 carries and one touchdown.
Atkinson is all about speed. While he shows some decent elusiveness when avoiding tackles, once he has a step's worth of open field, nearly every defender in the nation will be left eating the dirt-spray from his cleats. Yes, he's that fast.
With a back like Atkinson and the struggles in the passing game, the only question mark we have is why did he only touch the ball 14 times out of the backfield? We want to see more of this kid! He has the makings of a SportsCenter highlight machine.
Poor QB Containment on Defense
As good as Notre Dame's defensive front is, there's still one major problem that bites the Irish more often than not: containing a mobile quarterback when the pocket breaks down.
Against Oklahoma and one of the nation's premiere running quarterbacks, Notre Dame did a halfway decent job of bringing the pressure. But just when you were led to believe Blake Bell was about to be dropped for a decent loss, he'd sidestep one or two defenders and see nothing bout about 15 yards of open field right in front of him.
Coaches will tell you that pressure means nothing without containment, and that was certainly the case for the Irish against Oklahoma. Every time Bell rushed the ball for more than five yards, it was due to lost containment on a pass. Bell's long, 12 yards, seem paltry by comparison to the numbers put up by other ball-carriers. But when those 12 yards come on third-and-10, it can be a momentum killer for the defense.
What's Left to Say About Tommy Rees?
Without further ado, let's talk about Tommy Rees. And where to begin?
We could talk about him throwing two interceptions on his first three passes across the first four offensive plays of the game for Notre Dame—two interceptions which led directly to 14 points in less than three minutes for Oklahoma.
Or, we could talk about his complete lack of ability to complete any passes under pressure.
There's also his penchant for completely missing receivers on deep routes.
What about the near constant miscommunication with his receivers?
All of these are good things to harp on, but harping won't do Notre Dame any good at this point in the season. Rees was 9-of-24 for 104 yards, two TDs and three INTs. Granted, all three of the interceptions thrown today were tipped at some point in the air, but we're still talking about three picks—all of which led directly to Oklahoma touchdowns.
In the first half, Rees was a bad, but at least serviceable 6-of-13 for 52 yards. As painful as it was to watch, we were then subjected to an even worse performance in the second half (3-of-11 for 52 yards)—which finished with an 0-of-9 stretch for Rees.
It's just hard at this point to do or say anything that hasn't already been done or said. We just have to sit back and shake our heads. There are no easy answers. We can't magically wish Rees extra abilities. We can't will Everett Golson's eligibility to be reinstated. We can't divine or conjure up the next Joe Montana.
Instead, Notre Dame's coaching staff will need to develop a game plan that revolves around the talents—and, more importantly, the limitations—of the current Irish quarterbacks in order to win games.
That's a lot easier said than done, especially when faced with the prospect of finishing the season undefeated from this point on to reach a coveted BCS bowl.
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