By John Shinn
CNHI News Service
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Oklahoma’s experienced virtually nothing but heartbreak at Notre Dame. A record winning streak and even national title hopes had come crumbling down in the 10 previous meetings over the last 61 years.
Luck usually seemed to belong to the Irish. But it all changed Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.
The 14th-ranked Sooners exploited every break they received and created several more in a 35-21 victory over No. 22 Notre Dame.
“We came out hungry. This is just the start of it all, but today did show what we’re capable of,” OU linebacker Corey Nelson said.
What OU did was dominate the beginning and end of the showdown between two of college football’s traditional powers and completely flip the script from OU’s 30-13 loss to Notre Dame last year in Norman.
Last year, OU never led and wore down in the fourth quarter. Saturday, it never trailed and dominated the final 14 minutes of the game.
The third play of the game showed where the day was heading. OU linebacker Eric Striker hit Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees as he threw and his fluttering pass went right to Nelson, who returned it 24 yards for a touchdown.
One play later, Sooner linebacker Frank Shannon snared a deflected Rees’ pass setting up OU’s 32-yard touchdown drive.
“We came out right out of the gate and jumped right on them,” Shannon said. “Corey had a good interception, Striker with a big sack and I came out with another interception. And our defense, we were really hyped going in and that gave a lot of momentum to the offense.”
The momentum ebbed and flowed Saturday, but the barrage of Notre Dame turnovers and OU capitalizing on them was a major difference in the game.
However, there were others.
OU quarterback Blake Bell, who made his second career start and first on the road, threw for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The last was a 54-yard strike to Sterling Shepard early in the fourth quarter that essentially sealed the victory. The first was a scrambling 26-yard connection with Lacoltan Bester with 42 seconds left in the first half.
Both put the Sooners up by 14 points and they were two of the 33 passes Bell put in the air without an interception.
“He was really sharp,” OU coach Bob Stoops said of Bell. “He put the ball where it needed to be, finding the right guys, going through his reads. And give credit to the line to give them the opportunity to find those guys, so I thought he played great.”
In so many ways, Bell was the X factor Saturday. The junior was poised despite making his second career start. His athletic ability also showed up against the best defense the Sooners have faced.
Bell rushed for 59 yards and the Sooners finished with 212, which was 197 more than it put up in last season’s meeting.
Notre Dame (3-2) did have success running the ball. George Atkinson III rushed for a career-high 148 yards on a just 14 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run early in the second half.
But Notre Dame was counting on being able to run the ball and wear OU down like it did last season. The Irish couldn’t do it.
The defensive improvements OU has made were shown throughout the game. Notre Dame was just 4 for 12 converting third downs and had just 12 first downs in the game.
“We’re down 14 points, and I’ve got to go five wide receivers against a really good defense that matches up well against teams that do that,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “This defense was built to do the thing that’s we were doing down 14 points. That’s what I didn’t want to do. I wanted to be in two tight ends and I wanted to run the football, and I wanted to run play action and I wanted to be able to control the game that way.”
Notre Dame couldn’t because OU did. The Sooners finished the game with a nine-minute edge in time of possession and ran out the final 5:39 minutes of the game. After Rees’ 54-yard touchdown pass to Trey Niklas early in the fourth quarter, the Irish didn’t have another first down. Rees threw for just 104 yards in the game and was just 9 for 24 on the day.
All week long OU’s coaching staff harped on the importance of the fourth quarter. The game was Stoops’ third against Notre Dame. He’d lost the previous two in the fourth quarter.
“We definitely had a big chip on our shoulder,” Shepard said. “We stressed keep pushing in the fourth quarter and finish the game off.”
The Sooners did, and will the reap the benefits of it. How far the win takes them is up to OU. It returns to Owen Field next Saturday to play TCU. But Saturday could be the last time it faces a ranked team until November.
“I think we’re all going the right direction right now. Getting this win is big-time for the program,” Bell said. “We’ve still got a long ways to go.”
But OU is a team that’s improved in every game. When push came to shove Saturday, it was even able to change its luck against the Irish.
No. 14 OKLAHOMA 35, No. 22 NOTRE DAME 21
Oklahoma 14 7 6 8 — 35
Notre Dame 7 0 7 7 — 21
Okl—Co.Nelson 24 interception return (Hunnicutt kick), 14:11.
Okl—Dam.Williams 11 run (Hunnicutt kick), 12:15.
ND—T.Jones 6 pass from Rees (Brindza kick), 4:03.
Okl—Bester 26 pass from Bell (Hunnicutt kick), :42.
ND—G.Atkinson 80 run (Brindza kick), 12:31.
Okl—FG Hunnicutt 27, 8:11.
Okl—FG Hunnicutt 19, 2:43.
ND—Niklas 30 pass from Rees (Brindza kick), 14:10.
Okl—Shepard 54 pass from Bell (Shepard pass from Bell), 12:24.
First downs 25 12
Rushes-yards 42-212 29-220
Passing 238 104
Comp-Att-Int 23-31-0 9-25-3
Return Yards 42 1
Punts-Avg. 5-42.0 6-40.3
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 4-31 8-77
Time of Possession 35:44 24:16
RUSHING—Oklahoma, Clay 14-77, Bell 12-59, Dam.Williams 9-42, T.Knight 2-24, Finch 3-15, Team 2-(minus 5). Notre Dame, G.Atkinson 14-148, Folston 2-43, Carlisle 3-13, McDaniel 3-12, Hendrix 5-10, Team 1-(minus 1), Rees 1-(minus 5).
PASSING—Oklahoma, Bell 22-30-0-232, T.Knight 1-1-0-6. Notre Dame, Rees 9-24-3-104, Hendrix 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING—Oklahoma, Saunders 7-46, Shepard 5-83, Dam.Williams 4-41, Millard 2-13, Clay 2-7, Bester 1-26, Reynolds 1-16, Finch 1-6. Notre Dame, T.Jones 4-42, Niklas 2-43, Daniels 1-13, Fuller 1-11, G.Atkinson 1-(minus 5).