Notre Dame winning the rushing battle against Oklahoma seemed implausible while previewing this game and statistically it's the biggest key in beating a Bob Stoops coached football team. I thought they had a better chance to take home a victory if they won the turnover battle. Instead, Notre Dame took a sizeable advantage in the box score on the ground through three quarters, but their success had been completely nullified by three turnovers at the hands of Tommy Rees – not all is his fault but all of which Oklahoma turned into touchdowns. Even with Oklahoma running the ball most of the fourth quarter while ND took to the air, the Irish still finished with more rushing yards (220-212) at a very healthy 7.6 yards per attempt. In the end we were slapped in the face with a reminder of what once was for Notre Dame in 2012. A year ago opponents throwing over the middle found #5 disrupting everything in sight. In 2013, quick slants turn into touchdowns and opposing quarterbacks find holes in the zones with regularity. Maybe it wasn't the elite defensive line protecting an inexperienced secondary – maybe it was a game-changing three down middle linebacker who affected teammates and opponents from sideline to sideline.
You can't win games against good teams when turning the ball over three times. Not at home, not on the road, not when living in a van down by the river. I'm no advocate of benching Tommy Rees now or at any point this season but making that statement can't be confused with a ringing endorsement. The senior is not making the easy passes and he's struggled mightily the past two weeks at putting the ball where his teammates can make a play. Rees has 34 incomplete passes over the past two games with a 39.7% completion percentage. He has to be better, and a lot better, very quickly with Arizona State and USC ready to pounce on a lethargic bunch that knows they won't be heading to another National Championship Game.
The Good: I asked Lou Holtz on Tuesday night about the uneven and unpredictable rotation thus far at running back which included Kelly listing five Irish backs as first teamers Monday afternoon.Yes, THAT Lou Holtz told me "I think it's a motivational ploy. I don't like what they've been doing so far. Each player gets in the game and thinks he needs to make a huge play on each snap and isn't getting into the flow of the offense and executing properly." Cue presumed offseason feature back George Atkinson III getting the lion's share of carries (14 for GAIII & no other back had more than 3) and responding by hitting holes, taking what the defense gave him, and ripping off an 80 yard score that pulled the Irish within 7 points in the third quarter. Amazingly his mind appeared to not be 3 steps ahead of his feet and Atkinson carried piles and beat defenders in space. It was beautiful if not frustrating knowing the ground game had to go away down 14 points late in the fourth.
Next Step: The Irish are 3-2 and a BCS birth appears a million miles away at this juncture. Without a conference we now enter a phase of the season unique to Notre Dame where coaches and team leaders prove their chops. They've shown signs of reviving a rushing attack that led to so much success a year ago but still field a defense that lacks consistency and fails to adjust quickly to their opponents game plan. Can they rip off seven consecutive wins and presumably use Stanford in the final week to launch themselves into the BCS conversation? Absolutely. But much is left to be done in South Bend before we begin entertaining those kinds of notions. The talent is there but is the drive and the leadership?