Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly knows that his defense will be tested when the undefeated Fighting Irish travel to Oklahoma for their game on October 27. In fact, the performance of his defensive unit - especially against the big-play passing attack of the Sooners, will likely decide the winner. For Notre Dame fans, and alumni like me, concern about the Irish secondary is is high heading into the game.
"If you look at Oklahoma in the last few weeks, just putting up so many points, you're not going to win those games," Kelly admits when asked about Notre Dame's chances if the game becomes a shootout. "So it's going to start on the defensive side of the ball for us and to keep the points down, and then obviously find a way to get some scores. And it's going to be hard on both ends."
Kelly has reason to worry, just like those of us who root for Notre Dame. The Sooners have scored 156 points in the three games since they were upset by Kansas State earlier this season, including a 63-21 thrashing of a Texas team ranked in the top 15 at the time. Meanwhile, the Irish secondary has been beset by injuries, and is starting inexperienced players like true freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
"We're quite aware of their ability to get vertical," Kelly says of Oklahoma. "We take great pride in our ability to minimize those big plays. We're going to have to do that again on Saturday if we expect to win. If they can throw the ball over our head, it puts us in a very difficult situation defensively. So, again, our scheme, the way we coach it, the way our guys understand it, we have to minimize big plays."
Notre Dame's defense is the main reason the Irish are 7-0 and ranked fifth in the country going into the game. The perception is that their defense has been far more effective against the run than against the pass, in large part because Notre Dame still has not allowed a rushing touchdown all season. But, while the Irish are 15th in major college football against the run, allowing under 107 yards per game, Notre Dame is actually 14th in the country against the pass.Kelly will need his squad to stop the Sooners on the ground and in the air to keep their unbeaten streak, and hopes for a national championship, alive.
"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," he says. "It goes to the toughness of our football team. They believe they are going to win."I wish I believed it too. I want to. But the Notre Dame secondary, despite its statistical success, makes me fearful. But I would like nothing better than to be wrong.
Rick Blaine, an award-winning broadcaster and columnist, holds two degrees from Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @RickBlaineCT.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football