Unbeaten this late in a season for the first time in a decade, Notre Dame realizes there’s plenty more work to be done if it’s going to be considered a contender for the BCS title.
Oklahoma already has a loss, but the Sooners’ recent dominance has them thinking they’re also in the running.
Entering perhaps their toughest matchup of the season, the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish look to further legitimize their revival Saturday night when they visit No. 8 Oklahoma for the first time in 46 years.
Notre Dame (7-0) is emerging as a possibility to win the program’s first national title since 1988, with five games remaining in the regular season. The Irish figure to be favored in the three in between Saturday’s contest and the finale at Southern California, but coach Brian Kelly isn’t celebrating yet.
“If you’re 7-0 and five in the country and you think you’ve arrived, then that’s where as a coach and a team you’re in peril,” he said.
Kelly knows his team needed to rally for a rugged 17-14 home win over Brigham Young last weekend. In fact, four of Notre Dame’s victories have come by seven points or fewer, including the last two games.
“I think controlling the football for us and playing great defense in the second half has been our formula for winning and we are not going to go away from that,” Kelly said.
“It goes to the toughness of our football team,” he added. “They believe they are going to win.”
That attitude is certainly evident with Oklahoma (5-1), especially in Norman. The Sooners are 79-4 there under coach Bob Stoops, who has led them to 13 straight bowl games, including eight BCS contests and one national title.
That success isn’t lost on Kelly.
“That’s where we want to be. I mean, we want that consistency. Year in and year out you know Oklahoma is going to be part of the conversation,” Kelly said. “And that’s where we want to get our football program. We’re nowhere near that yet. We think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re trending the right way.”
The same could be said for the Sooners, who have scored 156 points during a three-game winning streak following a 24-19 home loss to then-No. 15 Kansas State. Oklahoma cruised to a 52-7 thumping of Kansas last Saturday after beating then-No. 15 Texas 63-21 the previous weekend.
“I think we are in a good spot,” quarterback Landry Jones said. “The key now is to not get complacent, not think we have it all figured out and continue to work, continue to sharpen, continue to do the things that we’re supposed to be doing.
“I think we’ve got a shot at this thing.”
In order to reach the BCS title game, Oklahoma would need to run the table and have several unbeatens lose, but the Sooners could knock off one of those Saturday.
It should help having Jones, who has been superb over the last three games, completing 62.3 percent of his passes for 880 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception.
The offense has totaled 1,083 yards - 647 through the air - over the last two contests, with the starting unit scoring on 15 of its last 20 drives, including 12 touchdowns.
“I think maybe as a unit we’re playing better,” Jones said. “I think we have more confidence right now going into games for sure than I think there’s ever been around this place, just knowing what we can do and what we’re capable of.”
Jones, though, must deal with a Notre Dame defense that has allowed an average of 9.4 points to rank second only to No. 1 Alabama.
Led by standout linebacker Manti Te’o, the Irish haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season and they rank sixth in the nation in total defense, yielding 280.7 yards per game. They have intercepted opponents 12 times while giving up just five passing touchdowns.
“I felt the best blueprint that we could put together for a national championship here was through our defense,” Kelly said.
Oklahoma also boasts a strong defense, allowing 15.3 points per game. The Sooners have forced nine turnovers and sacked opposing QBs six times in their last three contests.
The Irish, averaging only 17.7 points in three games against ranked opponents, are expected to have Everett Golson back under center. He sat out one game as a precaution after suffering a concussion in a 20-13 overtime win over then-No. 17 Stanford on Oct. 13.
Golson has completed 29 of 46 passes for 327 yards with one touchdown in his last two games, also rushing for 92 yards in that stretch. The Irish offense was powered by a pair of running backs against BYU, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood combining for 257 yards.
Notre Dame has won eight of nine all-time meetings with Oklahoma, including the only matchup since 1968 during Stoops’ first season with the Sooners in 1999.
The Irish last visited Norman in 1966, winning 38-0 en route to a national title.