Brian Kelly proves he's ready for the big stage as Notre Dame takes down Oklahoma

Pat Forde

NORMAN, Okla. – The Notre Dame heroes kept bouncing off the field, running a gauntlet of pad-slapping, high-fiving fans toward the visiting locker room.

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There was Manti Te'o, the team's heartbeat, fresh from enhancing his Heisman Trophy candidacy with 11 tackles, a sack and a key fourth-quarter interception. There was freshman quarterback Everett Golson, buoyant after a performance that eradicated doubts about whether he could lead the Fighting Irish to championship contention. There was freshman receiver Chris Brown, whose first collegiate catch merely went for 50 yards and changed the game. There was freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell, whose stellar open-field tackling helped throttle Oklahoma's explosive big-play offense.

Just when you thought everyone was present and accounted for, a fan looked back toward the field and yelled, "Hey, there's Coach Kelly!"

And here came Big Game Brian.

Big Game Brian commandeered Bob Stoops' nickname Saturday night. He took some more of Stoops' crumbling kingpin reputation, too, administering the Oklahoma coach's worst home loss – and giving him his second home loss in a single season for the first time. And he removed Stoops' Sooners completely from the national championship race with a 30-13 beating that nobody saw coming.

Except the 11½-point underdog Irish, who are more prominently positioned in that title race than ever now.

"Today is no surprise," Te'o said.

The first words from Big Game Brian in his postgame news conference: "Our kids were confident."

[Irish Illustrated: Notre Dame shocks Oklahoma]

Make no mistake where the confidence flows from. It comes from the borderline cocky Kelly, who has never acted like an underdog while laboriously climbing the coaching ladder. From Division II Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati, Kelly expected to win big at every stop – and did.

That didn't change when he got to Notre Dame. A middling 16-10 record and several missteps through two seasons did not shake the coach, or the man who hired him.

"You've been able to see the build the whole time," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "My focus was on finding a program builder, and that's what he's been."

That's why Swarbrick told me during the summer that Kelly started this season "on the coolest seat in the nation." He'd seen enough on a daily basis to know the breakthrough was coming.

Saturday night in Norman, there it was. Beating Michigan and Michigan State earlier this year was nice, but those teams haven't lived up to preseason billing. Beating Stanford was good, but that was at home and the Cardinal aren't the same without Andrew Luck.

But beating No. 8 Oklahoma here? That was a breakthrough. Big Game Brian got the statement victory he needed to keep himself tracking on the Ara-Devine-Holtz path toward a third-year national title.

All three of those men won it all in their third season at Notre Dame. Kelly, despite long odds – the Irish began the season unranked – has his team right in the mix to join them.

The lead group of contenders is now down to four: Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame. The Irish went into this weekend lacking the domination of the Crimson Tide or the Ducks, and the signature win of the Wildcats. That's now changed.

K-State first earned its national chops last month by coming into Norman and upsetting the Sooners 24-19. Now Notre Dame has done the same, winning by a wider margin than the Wildcats and outgaining Oklahoma by 24 yards – K-State was outgained here by that very margin.

So Notre Dame now has some fresh lipstick and eyeliner to put on for the BCS beauty pageant.

This was a virtuoso coaching job by Kelly and his staff, from pregame mindset and strategy to in-game play-calling. In addition to steeping his players in confidence, Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco – who has to be the leading candidate for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach – drew up the perfect way to beat a team on a roll.

Since the Kansas State loss, Oklahoma had been an explosive team. The Sooners scored 156 points in blowouts of Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas, punctuated by 11 plays of 38 or more yards from scrimmage or in the return game. There was a 100-yard kickoff return, a 95-yard run, a 90-yard punt return and a 73-yard reception in the last two games alone.

Against Notre Dame, the big-play Sooners sputtered. There was no play from scrimmage longer than 35 yards, and other than a 44-yard kickoff return after the outcome had been decided, OU got nothing special from its special teams.

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Diaco and Kelly knew that they had to keep all Oklahoma receivers in front of their defensive backs, then close space and tackle soundly. They ceded yards but limited points, forcing the Sooners to methodically execute for the full length of the field. As it turned out, they couldn't do it.

"We strategized a game plan to keep the points down," Kelly said. "We're not offensively at a point where we can outscore a team like Oklahoma. … We were going to make sure they didn't get behind us."

Surprisingly, it was the Irish who got behind Oklahoma on the two biggest plays of the game. The first was a 62-yard Cierre Wood burst up the middle in the first quarter, on a garden-variety run that broke wide open when the Sooners' safeties were nowhere to be found. The second was the 50-yard bomb to Brown.

That was an inspired play call. Facing a second-and-2 from Notre Dame's own 35-yard line in a tie game midway through the fourth, Kelly decided it was time to take a shot.

"I wanted to win the game," he explained.

The call was for Golson to fake a handoff and then take a look downfield for Brown, the two-time South Carolina triple jump champion in high school. Golson executed the fake, stepped up to avoid the rush and saw exactly what he hoped to see: Brown gaining separation from the secondary down the middle of the field.

Golson laid it in beautifully for Brown, who was tackled at the Oklahoma 15. Five plays later, Golson snuck in for the go-ahead touchdown, while everyone was still amazed that Kelly would call such a crucial play for a guy with zero college receptions.

"He's our fastest kid," Kelly explained. "We've been trying to get him on track."

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It was also a testament to the faith the coach had in Golson, who had been repeatedly questioned this season. The Irish had been winning with defense and some clutch relief performances from backup QB Tommy Rees, and there were plenty of people (yours truly among them) who wondered whether Rees should have been starting all along.

But Kelly stuck by Golson, announcing he would start this game after sitting out last week against BYU while recovering from a concussion. Golson has a stronger arm and better mobility than Rees, and both those gifts were on display Saturday as he ran for 64 yards and threw for 177.

Perhaps most importantly, Golson had no turnovers and handled the largest crowd in Oklahoma history with the aplomb of a senior, not a freshman.

"Everett Golson led our team," Kelly said. "It's been a process, but I think tonight was a big step up for our quarterback."

It was a big step up for Notre Dame, period. And for Big Game Brian, who took the nickname away from the man who used to win all the major showdowns in this town.

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