Go ahead and play man-to-man defense against his squad, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly dares. He believes he has the weapons both under center and in the receiving game to create an advantage.
This is no startling revelation to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who is preparing to have his players defend plenty of Tommy Rees pass attempts as his No. 14 Sooners visit the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish on Saturday.
Kelly contends it is his priority to have a successful running game, but Rees has been called upon to throw the ball plenty this season, especially when defenses are playing man to man. Notre Dame (3-1) faced tight coverage all day in last week's 17-13 win over Michigan State as Rees went 14 of 34 for 142 yards and a touchdown.
The senior has averaged 39.3 attempts over the Irish's last three games and has a 138.1 passer rating that's 53rd in the nation. Four of his eight touchdown throws have gone to DaVaris Daniels with another two to TJ Jones, who caught a scoring pass last week.
Daniels has 20 catches for 305 yards, while Jones has caught 21 balls for 304.
"If (opponents) think that they can prevent us from throwing the ball over their heads, then we may see (man-to-man defense) again. If they don't, they'll play more zone and give us an opportunity to run the football," Kelly said. "Teams will have to decide how they want to play us. But they know what we're going to do if they play man to man."
Stoops is among the informed, and he said the Sooners (3-0) will have to pick their battles defensively. Notre Dame benefited from multiple pass interference calls that extended drives last week while taking advantage of the physical Michigan State defensive backs.
"They're going to put it up in every game a good number of times," Stoops said. "(Rees) throws an excellent ball, and they have confidence in their receivers going up and getting it. That's definitely something we're aware of and something we need to be able to defend."
Kelly has continued to stress the importance of the running game after it was held to a season-low 78 yards last week, marking the first time since 2008 that Notre Dame has been under 100 on the ground in three straight contests.
Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson each have received at least 24 carries on the season.
"I think in the run game, we need to continue to evolve," Kelly said. "We're getting so many different looks where at times we have to be able to identify different backers, who to work to."
The Irish also are searching for consistency on defense. They held the Spartans to 254 yards last week, but they allowed an average of 372.0 yards over the previous three.
"Who is going to show up now is really going to be what we're asking," Kelly said. "Are we going to see the group that showed itself against Michigan State consistently, or the group that we saw the last couple weeks that played hot and cold?"
Notre Dame gave up a regular-season worst 379 yards - 364 through the air - against Oklahoma on Oct. 27, but still came away with a 30-13 road victory on its way to the BCS title game.
The Sooners are averaging 490.3 yards this season, and they're hoping Blake Bell can stay hot after he went 27 of 37 for 413 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start, a 51-20 victory over Tulsa on Sept. 14.
Bell, who has taken over for ineffective redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, had 24 rushing touchdowns over his first two seasons while primarily being used in short-yardage situations, but Stoops is confident Bell will be poised heading into a tough environment in South Bend.
"He's a great competitor. He's been in a lot of critical, important situations, and he's handled them well,'' Stoops said. "He's not like a true first-time guy out there playing, because for the last few years, he's been in a lot of big games in those kinds of situations where it matters."
Bell scored his team's lone touchdown against Notre Dame last season on a 1-yard run, but the Irish shut down Oklahoma on the ground. The Sooners finished with 24 carries for 15 yards, the program's second-worst rushing day in a decade.
Oklahoma will be making its first visit to Notre Dame Stadium since a 34-30 loss Oct. 2, 1999. It is 1-9 all-time against the Irish, with its only victory coming in 1956.
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