Oklahoma Sooners: Gabe Lynn
When OU signed this group in February 2009, it looked like a quality class that could feature some future stars. Yet the best and most productive players signed were afterthoughts on signing day. The class was ranked No. 11 nationally by ESPN.com.
Center Gabe Ikard: A high school tight end who developed into an All-Big 12 interior lineman, Ikard is the perfect example of terrific evaluation by OU. He didn’t have the traits to become an elite tight end, but ESPN.com’s No. 19 ranked tight end had intelligence, a physical nature and toughness that made him perfect for a move inside. He earned 50 career starts after a redshirt season in 2009 and earned All-Big 12 first-team honors in each of his final three seasons.
Cornerback Demontre Hurst: A three-year starter, Hurst was consistent and durable during his time as a cornerback for the Sooners. The No. 58-ranked cornerback in the nation, Hurst finished his career with 178 tackles and 33 pass breakups after stepping on campus with minimal fanfare.
Safety Javon Harris: The No. 32-ranked safety in the nation, Harris was a two-year starter and contributor on special teams throughout his career. He finished with 162 career tackles and nine interceptions in 44 career games (21 starts).
Defensive end Ronnell Lewis: Lewis, No. 83 in the ESPN 150, would have exceed expectations if he had remained in school for all four seasons. He was on the path to have a dominant senior season but chose to leave early. Nonetheless he was a force on special teams as soon as he stepped on campus then developed into a quality defensive end as a junior. He had 118 tackles, including 20.5 tackles for loss, and started at least one game during each of his three seasons, finishing with 14 starts in 34 games.
Guard Tyler Evans: The No. 25 offensive guard in the nation, Evans started in 29 games in three seasons as a Sooner before knee injuries derailed his career. If every offensive lineman the Sooners recruited turned out like Evans, they’d be pretty happy.
Defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland: As the No. 54 player in the ESPN 150, McFarland shouldered a lofty ranking and expectations to match Gerald McCoy and Tommie Harris when he arrived on campus. He fell short of that duo, but he was a valuable asset during his final three seasons with the Sooners. He started 22 games and had at least 20 tackles for three consecutive seasons.
Safety Gabe Lynn: Another guy who had high expectations as the No. 80 player in the rankings and another guy who started games in each of his final three seasons. Lynn never became a star, but he was a key piece in an OU defense that ranked among the Big 12's best during his final two seasons. He had 116 tackles and four interceptions in 44 career games (25 starts).
Completely missed the mark
Linebacker Gus Jones: The No. 8 inside linebacker never stepped on the field at OU. He transferred after one semester in Norman.
Overall grade: B
Not an outstanding recruiting class, but far from a bad class. Some of the projected stars turned out to be just starters, but hidden gems such as Ikard, Johnson and Hurst elevated this grade above average. A class that won a lot of games, but the lack of skill-position stars meant it wasn’t strong enough to be the foundation of a national championship run.
Safety Gabe Lynn’s interception in the first quarter
The Sooners brought four pass rushers against Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who made a horrible decision, throwing into triple coverage despite not being pressured. The Crimson Tide had single coverage on every other receiver, making McCarron’s decision even worse. He essentially threw the ball as if he didn't see that Lynn was sitting in center field to attack any deep throw.
Lynn, reading McCarron’s eyes, made the easy interception. It was a key play for the Sooners as it came right after Knight threw an interception on OU’s first possession, and it prevented the Crimson Tide from jumping out to a two-touchdown lead.
Knight’s 45-yard touchdown to Lacoltan Bester in the first quarter
It started with a play-action pass off a zone-read fake. OU only had two receivers running routes, with Sterling Shepard providing a safety net option after the fake. Without a perfect throw from Knight, this would not have been a touchdown. It was accurate with zip, allowing Bester to gather it in and turn upfield. Bester’s stutter step provided just enough room to dive in for the score. The most underrated aspect of the touchdown was the confidence from Heupel to call a pass on the first offensive play after Knight’s interception.
The fact coach Bob Stoops sought out Knight to congratulate him after the play speaks volumes about the importance of the touchdown. It was at that point the Sooners realized Knight had brought his “A” game and they would be able to take advantage of the Crimson Tide’s focus on OU’s ground attack.
Knight’s 43-yard beauty to Jalen Saunders in the second quarter
Alabama defensive back Deion Belue gave Saunders’ a 10-yard cushion before the snap, and still was beaten deep. This is where having NFL-caliber players on your roster pays off.
Play action helped get Saunders one-on-one against Belue, who bit on Saunders' double move. Knight delivered a perfect throw over the outside shoulder, where only Saunders could make a play on it. The senior receiver made a superb, over-the-shoulder catch while keeping one foot in bounds for the touchdown. Saunders' combination of quickness and acceleration was simply too much for Belue on the play.
Cornerback Zack Sanchez's interception
Everett, who was five yards behind the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, was in McCarron’s face when the Bama quarterback threw the ball. Sanchez, knowing the blitz was on, jumped the hot route for the interception in front of Amari Cooper, who stopped his route for some reason. Alabama actually picked up the blitz well, but OU just brought too many defenders to block. Sanchez made a great play and Cooper didn’t.
Geneo Grissom’s touchdown to seal the game
Cyrus Kouandjio is probably still waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares of trying to block Sooners linebacker Eric Striker. The sophomore blew past the All-SEC left tackle to force a fumble by McCarron that was scooped up by Grissom and returned eight yards for a touchdown.
The play is notable because it was a mirror representation of the key to OU’s win. The Sooners were able to get pressure on McCarron while rushing four defenders. Striker got to McCarron less than three seconds after the snap and defensive end Charles Tapper, after a stunt, drove his man back into McCarron’s face, preventing him from stepping up into the pocket to avoid Striker. Both players won their individual battles and the result was the game-sealing touchdown.
Finding someone outside the Sooner state who is picking OU to beat Alabama is like finding someone who had heard of Champion Baptist College before Monday night.
OU enters the game as clear underdogs and several Sooners have been asked by classmates if they are scared to play Alabama. That’s right, scared and they aren’t happy about it.
“If you ask any guy that question, you’ll get a sour response from anyone,” guard Bronson Irwin said. “If you say yes to that question, you’re probably in the wrong sport. This is top-level football. If you’re scared of anyone, you’re already beaten in my mind. A lot of this game is mental and a lot of the games are won before you start.”
Ask any Sooner about the Crimson Tide and their mouths fill with praise and respect for the two-time defending BCS champions. Yet they’re sick of people acting like they don’t belong on the same field as the SEC power.
“They’re a great team and they have been a great team for the last few years,” senior safety Gabe Lynn said. “It’s going to be a good challenge but, yeah, we’re kind of sick of being overlooked.”
Maybe the Sooners are sick of being the underdog because it’s a role they’ve played several times this season, much more than a program with Oklahoma’s tradition is accustomed to. With a lackluster passing game and injury-filled season, many questioned OU’s chances in several games this season.
“We’ve kept the same attitude all year long,” quarterback Trevor Knight said. “We’ve battled injuries, we’ve battled adversity, but we’ve always found people to step up and perform and continue making plays. People got down on us at times during the year, but here we are, a 10-win team going to the Sugar Bowl against a great Alabama team. In our locker room, we’ve had that attitude all year long that the next guy has to step up and make plays.”
OU lost fullback Trey Millard, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Corey Nelson during the season. Several starters, including All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, missed games and/or played with injuries this season. Those injury woes have led to doubts that OU could win 10 games and earn a BCS berth.
Yet that’s exactly what the Sooners did.
“It builds hunger,” Colvin said of the doubters. “We’ve been going through that a lot this year. A lot of the teams we’ve played we’ve been ruled out. With Oklahoma State I’m pretty positive that everybody picked us to lose that game. We don’t really get affected by that. I think we enjoy that a little bit, being the underdog and having us against everybody else.”
Funny thing is, it’s not like this has never happened before. Florida lost to Louisville in last year’s Sugar Bowl and Alabama was upset by Utah in 2009 when the nation expected those SEC squads to roll in New Orleans.
The Sooners hope to make it three times in six years an underdog has upset an SEC power in the Sugar Bowl.
“It’s one of those things where it’s a bowl game and anything can happen,” All-Big 12 center Gabe Ikard said. “It comes down to preparation, who prepares better, who practices better leading up to the game and who executes better on the field. SEC vs. Big 12 doesn’t matter. It’s one game. Anything can happen in one game.
“If we go out there and play well it’s going to be a good game for us. We’re excited for the opportunity. We realize that a lot of people are doubting us and deservedly so. Alabama has been the king of college football and they deserve all of that respect. It’s up to us to go down there and play them well and go get a Sugar Bowl victory.”
And prove doubters wrong. Again.
Oklahoma spent the first few practices of its bowl preparation giving its younger players most of the repetitions, allowing guys like quarterback Cody Thomas the opportunity to start to carve out their futures in the program.
For the freshmen and sophomores, it’s an opportunity to send the message that they could be impact players in 2014. Defensive tackle Jordan Wade, cornerback Zack Sanchez and quarterback Trevor Knight are just a few of the contributors to their 10-2 season who had not played a down of college football at this time a year ago.
Several Sooners have seized the opportunity, but K.J. Young is a name that has continually come up as an impressive performer during practices. The redshirting receiver made a great impression when he arrived on campus and has continued to impress during the short bowl prep period.
“Man, K.J.’s got stick 'ems, he’s got some hands,” linebacker Eric Striker said. “Good hands, good routes, too. He doesn’t drop the ball. K.J. has been doing it all season so it’s not a surprise.”
Said safety Gabe Lynn: “He’s nice at receiver. He goes up and gets the ball at its highest point.”
Young, a three-star signee from Perris, Calif., had some ups-and-downs during his redshirting season but is setting himself up to make an impact on the Sooners’ offense next season, which would be ideal with senior slot receiver Jalen Saunders completing his eligibility in the Sugar Bowl.
“It’s hard when kids are away from home their freshman year,” Norvell said. “He’s made some mistakes but I think, of late, he can kind of see the light. He’s away from home but he’s gotten a chance the last few days in practice to make some plays and he’s really stepping up. We’re really excited about him next year.”
Jordan Smallwood could be another young receiver to keep an eye on. At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, he brings terrific size to the position. He returned to practice this week after missing the regular season due to a Lisfranc (foot) injury.
“He just got cleared, so he’s been out there running around and anxious to make plays,” Norvell said. “Smallwood gives us a different body type than we’ve ever had. He’s just so big, so physical and so strong for a young guy and he really creates matchup problems.”
Thomas also could be putting himself into position to throw his name into the mix as the Sooners continue to search for their quarterback of the future heading into 2014. Knight was in the same position as Thomas a year ago, yet eight months later, Knight was named OU’s starter for the season opener, proof of how valuable taking advantage of every opportunity can be.
“Cody is doing a great job and throwing the ball around really well,” Knight said. “I’m excited for him to get a bunch of reps because this is an exciting time for him. I remember when I was there last year and I can’t believe it’s only been a year, it seems like it was forever ago. But it’s just the starting spot to becoming a really good player.”
Oklahoma's defense was the foundation of the team's drive to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Mike Stoops' unit finished atop the Big 12 in passing yards allowed and total yards allowed while making sure the Sooners had the chance to win every game they played, even with constant uncertainty at quarterback. The defensive line was surprisingly good, the linebackers were much more productive than in 2012 and the secondary replaced several starters with relative ease.
Here are the position-by-position grades for the Sooners' defense.
Linebackers: A-. OU’s linebackers showed terrific improvement in 2013. Junior Frank Shannon and freshman Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year, finished 1-2 in tackles. Shannon played through nicks and bruises to finish with 85 tackles while Alexander finished with 75 stops after being thrust into the starting role against Texas. Add linebacker/defensive end hybrid Eric Striker to the mix and the linebackers were among the most productive groups on the squad. The versatility of Shannon and Alexander and Striker’s pass rushing skills are one reason the Sooners finished second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage at 32.5 percent.
Cornerbacks: A-. Two-time All-Big 12 performer Aaron Colvin is an “A+++” performer. He showed toughness, leadership and exceptional coverage skills as a senior. With Colvin on the other side, redshirt freshman Zack Sanchez was constantly picked on by opponents but held up well and, most importantly, displayed the competitive nature every cornerback needs to succeed. Behind Colvin and Sanchez, freshman Stanvon Taylor and sophomore Cortez Johnson both made starts and earned valuable experience while providing quality depth. And nickelback Julian Wilson was stellar in his first season as a starter while tying for the team lead with three interceptions. OU led the Big 12 with 198 passing yards allowed per game, largely because of quality play from its cornerbacks and Wilson.
Safeties: A-. As good as the cornerbacks were, the safeties held their own in the defensive backfield. OU’s safeties were better in coverage this season than in 2012 while limiting big plays in the running and passing game. Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes weren’t dominant forces in the secondary but they were very good and played key roles while helping the Sooners to their 10-2 record.
Before the season began, the Oklahoma senior cornerback was asked to name a breakout star for the Sooners, and he responded with an unlikely candidate:
Lynn, a senior defensive back, has bounced around the secondary and battled inconsistency during his career, playing cornerback, nickelback and safety in his five seasons in Norman. He’s finally found a home at safety as a senior, a consistent presence on the Sooners defense.
Lynn’s play in OU’s 41-31 victory over Kansas State is an example of the value he’s brought to the Sooners defense in 2013. He set the tone early in the Nov. 23 victory, tackling Wildcats running back John Hubert for a 6-yard loss, then sacking quarterback Jake Waters on third down to end KSU’s first drive to help the Sooners hold a 7-0 first-quarter lead.
The Tulsa, Okla., native has turned up his play in OU's last few games, recording 11 tackles and two sacks in the Sooners’ back-to-back wins over KSU and Iowa State after their blowout loss to Baylor on Nov. 7.
As injuries have hit the rest of the defense, Lynn has played the role of experienced veteran. He leads the team with three interceptions and has 46 tackles, ranking fifth on the team. One of four returning starters from last year’s defense, Lynn’s move to safety has allowed him to use his physical mindset to his advantage while limiting the one-on-one coverage responsibilities that led to his struggles as a underclassman.
“The position Coach Mike [Stoops] has put him in has allowed him to go out and there and really play to his strong suit,” Colvin said. “Gabe has always been real physical, always liked to hit. With the position he’s at now, he’s being able to showcase that.”
Lynn had his ups-and-downs as a sophomore cornerback, becoming the scapegoat for a lot of the Sooners’ defensive struggles due in part to lofty expectations based on his status as an elite recruit in the Class of 2009. As a junior he moved to nickelback and showed remarkable improvement. As a senior, he’s proven to be more trustworthy than at any time during his career, and his leadership has been critical for a young defense.
“He has really made a conscious effort to be more of a playmaker and be a guy that you rely on,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “... The trust and the reliability has really grown all season.”
Colvin has dealt with various injuries this season, missing two games, and senior linebacker Corey Nelson was lost for the season in October. Those injuries have left Lynn as the lone senior to start all 11 games, making his leadership role even more valuable.
“He’s a guy that when Aaron [Colvin] is not in, we really look to,” Stoops said.
His mentorship role has also helped redshirt freshman cornerback Zack Sanchez hold up well during his first season as a starter. Sanchez has had moments when he’s excelled, such as his 74-yard interception return for a touchdown against KSU, and moments when he’s been picked on, such as his bad outing against Texas Tech. Through it all, Lynn, who had his own struggles against the Red Raiders as a sophomore, been there to relate with Sanchez and help him forget the past and move on to the next play.
“Gabe has been that big brother to always help me when I’m down,” Sanchez said.
Heading into OU’s Bedlam battle with Oklahoma State on Saturday, the Sooners defense will be counting on Lynn to continue his dependable play against a Cowboys offense that has beaten teams on the ground and through the air.
“It is really important to him to play well,” Stoops said. “I am really pleased with his development.”
ISU’s 2.5 yards per play on third down: Mike Stoops defense was dominant on third down, allowing just 35 yards on 14 third-down plays while holding ISU to 5 of 14 third down conversions. Frank Shannon, Gabe Lynn and Eric Striker each recorded sacks and safety Quentin Hayes grabbed his interception on third-down plays. OU’s defense stepped up in those clutch moments on Saturday.
OU’s 212-yard margin in the third quarter: The Sooners gained 231 yards in the third quarter compared to the Cyclones' 19 yards as OU pulled away after halftime. Brennan Clay had a 63-yard touchdown run and Williams added a 69-yard touchdown run as OU put the game away by averaging 14.93 yards per carry during the third quarter. OU came out of the locker room with a different focus and execution, allowing it to impose its will on ISU in the final half.
OU’s pass defense expected points added: The Sooners pass defense finished with 7.38 expected points added, an ESPN metric which essentially means that OU's pass defense contributed 7.38 points to the win. They rallied after ending the first quarter at minus-3.14 expected points added. They added 2.39 points in the second quarter, 3.35 points in the third and capped it off by adding 4.79 points in the fourth. Playing without All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin, the Sooners' secondary was solid with Cortez Johnson and Stanvon Taylor each playing well in Colvin’s absence.
OU’s 3.73 points per drive: The Sooners averaged 3.73 points per drive against the Cyclones, including a game-high six points per drive in the third quarter. OU is averaging 2.21 points per drive this season and the Big 12 average is 2.06. Florida State leads the nation with a 3.84 points per drive average. It was the second-most points per drive for the OU offense this season behind its 4.64 average against Tulsa. Seeing OU’s offense be so prolific with Knight, a redshirt freshman, behind center could be an encouraging sign for the future.
He ended up doing more damage than good.
Amaro’s fumble late in the second quarter was one of two Texas Tech turnovers that directly lead to Oklahoma touchdowns in the Sooners’ 38-30 win over the Red Raiders at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Sooners defensive end Charles Tapper forced the fumble as Amaro was battling for extra yardage. OU also got an interception from safety Gabe Lynn at the start of the fourth quarter with OU clinging to a four-point lead. The Sooners capitalized following both plays with touchdowns by Saunders and Damien Williams respectively.
“That’s huge,” TTU coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “You cannot come into this stadium, against this team, with these coaches and those athletes, and do that. We knew coming in that we couldn’t have the turnovers but we didn’t take care of business.”
The Tech turnovers helped the Sooners overcome a creative and aggressive game plan from Kingsbury. A fake punt, a halfback pass, an onside kick, the Ninja formation, it was all on display -- and successful -- for the Red Raiders who were trying to remain unbeaten.
Yet, the Sooners consistently came up with key defensive plays when they needed them.
“We hadn’t seen that in a couple of weeks but we’ve always had faith in them,” Lynn said of the offense turning the miscues into touchdowns. “I’m proud of them, running game, passing game, we made some huge plays on offense.”
Lynn’s interception was the only time the Sooners’ defense stopped the Red Raiders from scoring in the second half before Tech’s final drive of the game. Tech opened the second half with 17 points on three drives before Lynn picked off a tipped pass and the Sooners’ offense took the field with a seven-play, 58-yard drive to take a 35-24 lead on a three-yard touchdown run by Williams.
“It was very important because they have a great offense and we know they like to hurry up and get after it,” Williams said. “Whenever they [the defense] gave us a chance to get back on the field, we knew we had to capitalize and that’s exactly what we did.”
The Sooners’ defense was far from perfect, allowing 460 yards on 79 plays (5.8 yards per play) including 388 passing yards. However, OU held Tech to 5 of 14 third down conversion attempts and forced all three of the Red Raiders’ turnovers in its own territory.
“They got stops when they had to get stops,” center Gabe Ikard said of OU’s defense. “I thought besides a fumble early we [the offense] took care of [the ball]. The ball is everything in this game, for them to get key turnovers in key spots really helped us out, gave us momentum and we capitalized on them.”
And that, ultimately, was the difference.
His name is Jace Amaro. And he’s a matchup problem for any defense.
“He’s a big target,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “He’s very experienced, he reads coverages very well, he knows how to get open. Those are all important characteristics and he has great hands. He is a very complete player and there are no holes in his game.”
At 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, Amaro brings great size and athleticism to Texas Tech’s offense. He’s too big and physical for most defensive backs and too quick and athletic for most linebackers. Those traits allow coach Kliff Kingsbury to design plays to take advantage of Amaro’s skills in the passing game while also being able to count on him to help pave the way when the Red Raiders attempt to run.
“[He’s] great receiver, blocker and they feed it to him,” coach Bob Stoops said. “So he’s a big part of what they do.”
Yet the Sooners have had success against Amaro, allowing him just three receptions for 29 yards in OU’s 41-20 win in Lubbock last season. And OU is even more equipped to handle the junior this season. Nickelback Julian Wilson, if healthy, can deal with Amaro better than most defenders with his size and speed. Backup cornerback Cortez Johnson also has the size and converage skills to try to match-up with Amaro, along with safeties Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes who could match up with Tech's top target at times.
Amaro’s consistency is one reason the Red Raiders offense has continued to hum despite uncertainty at quarterback. Amaro's size and ball skills provide the ideal safety net for freshmen quarterbacks Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield so the Sooners will have to have a detailed plan to try to corral the stellar tight end.
“He (Amaro) is big target in the middle and that helps out the quarterback tremendously,” Mike Stoops said. “He understands leverage very well; he has very good knowledge of his space on the field and how to get to his spaces on the field, those are important elements. He is a very complete player.”
Three turnovers: Make no mistake, the Sooners won the game thanks to their plus-3 turnover margin. Linebacker Corey Nelson immediately turned the momentum in the Sooners’ favor with his 24-yard interception return for touchdown to start the scoring and OU never looked back. The Sooners weren’t great on third down (5-of-14) or in the red zone (1 of 4 touchdown conversions), yet they were able to overcome it because they won the turnover battle. Since 2004, OU has forced three turnovers on 45 occasions, winning 40 of those games.
First down yards per play average: OU averaged 6.76 yards per play on first down. The Sooners did it with terrific balance, averaging 5.89 yards per carry while quarterback Blake Bell was 13 of 16 for 124 yards and one touchdown on first down against the Irish. Heading into the game it was clear first-down success would be important, and the Sooners excelled with 18 carries for 106 yards and 7.8 yards per pass attempt on first-down plays. Their success on first down made second and third down a lot easier.
Blake Bell 12 carries: The Sooners quarterback had the second-most carries on the squad in the win over the Irish. Not all of those runs were planned. Regardless, Bell’s ability to be a threat running the ball -- 12 carries for 59 yards -- made OU’s offense harder to stop.
Notre Dame’s 4.16 yards per pass attempt: The Sooners' secondary was superb against ND. Cornerback Aaron Colvin returned after missing the Tulsa game and played like an All-Big 12 performer, cornerback Zack Sanchez held up well in his first career road game, and nickelback Julian Wilson and safety Quentin Hayes each had solid performances. OU’s secondary has gone from question mark to strength during September.
Sooners’ time of possession in the fourth quarter: OU had the ball for 12:11 in the final quarter. The Sooners emphasized the fourth quarter throughout the week and clearly came out on top in the final 15 minutes, including 16 carries for 52 yards. While not stellar rushing numbers, OU did enough on the ground to keep ND off the field and limit the home team's chance to mount a comeback.
On Saturday, Oklahoma will make its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium in 14 years. The Irish won that 1999 contest, 34-30, and have won eight others against the Sooners, as they hold a 9-1 all-time mark in the series. Last season's game turned on several big Notre Dame plays on both sides of the ball, lifting the Irish to a 30-13 road win and an 8-0 record.
What will happen this time around? We turn to Big 12 reporter Brandon Chatmon and Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna to preview this weekend's tilt in South Bend, Ind.
Matt: Brandon, Blake Bell earned the noble distinction last year of becoming the first player to rush for a touchdown against Notre Dame. That was eight games into the Irish's season, and this year they have already given up two scores on the ground. Obviously, Bell has a lot more on his plate this time around. And he is making his first career road start, in a stadium where the Irish have won 10 straight games. What can Notre Dame's defense expect to see from Bell on Saturday?
Brandon: The Irish will actually have to account for the possibility they will see No. 10 throw the ball when he's behind center. Notre Dame will have to be prepare for Bell to test its secondary with his arm more than his feet, and he showed he might be a better passer than people think in his first start against Tulsa. Undoubtedly, the windows will shrink against ND but the fact remains that the Irish will have to prepare for Bell, who could test them with his arm and feet, unlike their preparations for Landry Jones, who doesn't put fear into the heart of any defense with his legs. The overriding question in Norman is: how have the Irish changed in the trenches after manhandling OU in Norman last season? Can they do that again?
Matt: The depth of Notre Dame's defensive line took some hits this offseason -- first with the transfer of Eddie Vanderdoes to UCLA, then with the ACL tear suffered by Tony Springmann. Still, the front-line guys remain very dangerous, though the numbers have not exactly depicted that through four games. The Irish's opponents have done a good job of establishing a quick-strike passing game, effectively negating the strengths of the Irish's defensive linemen. A mobile quarterback like Bell will likely present more challenges Saturday, and it us up to the Irish to continue to adjust. The other side is a bit of a mystery as well. Notre Dame has struggled to establish much of a run game so far, but its offensive line has done a tremendous job of keeping Tommy Rees standing up straight through four games, and the offense has again limited the turnovers. Rees and this year's group of running backs just don't pose the kind of threat that Everett Golson and last year's backfield did, so it's hard to imagine the Irish running to set up the deep pass in the same way they were able to last year, when they connected with Chris Brown for a game-changing 50-yard strike in the fourth quarter. They may have more weapons at receiver this year, though. How does Oklahoma's pass coverage match up with TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels and company?
Brandon: Well, Matt, the Sooners' secondary would like to think it's ready for the challenge against Rees and Notre Dame's receivers. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won't be a concern, but the rest of the secondary is somewhat untested. Senior Gabe Lynn is starting at safety, a new position, after spending his first three seasons at nickelback and corner, and he has played well. OU's three new starters, nickelback Julian Wilson, cornerback Zack Sanchez and safety Quentin Hayes, have looked good but haven't yet played a quarterback who will capitalize on their mistakes. That said, the OU secondary, without question, is faster and better in coverage than the 2012 version. Whether it will it hold up mentally in a hostile environment is the unanswered question, so I can't wait to see how it all plays out. Anyway, who do you like this weekend?
Matt: Notre Dame's defense played its best game Saturday, responding to Brian Kelly's mid-week challenge. But I'm just not sure it has completely turned the corner yet. I think the Irish are getting Oklahoma at a more opportune time, as Bell is making just his second start and the Sooners have yet to really be tested. But I have not seen enough so far that makes me believe Notre Dame will be able to handle everything Oklahoma will throw at it offensively. Oklahoma has had one more week to prepare, and I sense a bit of wounded pride coming from the Sooners after the Irish out-muscled them late last year and, eventually, ended up ruining the their BCS-bowl hopes. How do you see this one unfolding?
Brandon: I think everything falls on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. Rees is much more experienced than Bell and I have a feeling that's going to show itself on Saturday as the Irish make Bell uncomfortable in the pocket and force a couple of mental mistakes from the junior during his first road start. OU's defense will hold up and play well, giving the Sooners the chance to remain in the game no matter what happens offensively. But turnovers will be the difference and ND will win the turnover battle and win a close, hard-fought game at home.
Those questions will start to get answered on Saturday when the Sooners visit South Bend, Ind., to take on Notre Dame.
Rush attempts: OU will want to establish the running game and be much more balanced than it was during its 30-13 loss to ND in Norman last season. The Sooners passed the ball 52 times and ran 24 times in that defeat.
Why it matters: If OU’s rushing attempts surpass 35, that likely means the Sooners are having success on the ground, particularly on first down. Four- or five-yard gains on first down will increase the chances of second down rushes. One- or two-yard gains will not. If the Sooners can run the ball, their odds of winning increase significantly.
Tackles for loss: The Sooners need to play the majority of the game on Notre Dame’s side of the line of scrimmage. OU had two tackles for loss against the Fighting Irish in 2012 as Notre Dame was never really taken out of its comfort level despite starting a redshirt freshman quarterback in Everett Golson.
Why it matters: Mike Stoops’ defense has been much more aggressive this season with more blitzing and a one-gap scheme along the defensive line. Those moves were made to get more penetration into opponent’s backfield. If OU has five or more tackles for loss on Saturday, that’s a great sign. If not, its defense could be losing the battle in the trenches.
Tackles recorded by Sooners’ linebackers: OU’s leading tacklers after three games are Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon. Last season, the Sooners’ leading tacklers were safeties Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris. Jefferson and cornerback Aaron Colvin combined for 21 tackles in OU’s loss to ND last year, a sign that the defensive line and linebackers were subpar at best.
Why it matters: Nelson and Shannon have played extremely well, along with pass rush specialist Eric Striker. If Nelson and Shannon are making plays sideline-to-sideline and Striker is getting pressure on ND quarterback Tommy Rees, the Sooners defense will have the chance to dominate the game. If OU safeties Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes are making the majority of the tackles, that means Nelson and Shannon aren’t stepping up their game against the run or pass.
Red zone efficiency: People often talk about how the Irish came into OU’s house and dominated the Sooners in their last meeting. OU was 1 of 5 in the red zone in that loss, a negative state in a game that was tied 13-13 with just under 12 minutes left in regulation. Clearly, the Sooners weren’t that far away from leaving Memorial Stadium with a win. Worse yet, they were 1 of 3 in goal-to-go situations that evening.
Why it matters: Scoring points and capitalizing on opportunities decide games, particularly games between two quality opponents. The Sooners can’t expect to win if they make consistent trips into the red zone and don’t come away with points like they did in 2012. Blake Bell scored OU’s lone touchdown last season, so the Sooners should be able to come up with ways to use Bell's skill set to make things harder on ND's defense. OU was 4 of 7 in the red zone and 3 of 4 on goal-to-go situations against Tulsa on Sept. 14 -- Bell’s lone start this season -- but they’ll need to be even more efficient against the Irish.
Time of possession: There are several games where time of possession is irrelevant in this era of college football. This game will not be one of them. ND won the time of possession battle in 2012, as the Irish generally controlled the pace of the game.
Why it matters: If OU can control the ball and maintain possession, it'll help take the crowd out of the game, potentially making things a lot easier in Bell’s first collegiate road start. Obviously, if the Sooners can score five touchdowns on drives of two minutes or less to start the game, they’ll take it. But the much more realistic scenario is to try to control the pace of the game by maintaining possession, much like the Irish did a year ago.
Here are five things we’ve learned about OU’s defense during the first three weeks of the season.
2. The defensive interior is better than we thought. Nobody doubted defensive tackle Jordan Phillips' potential; he flashed it several times during his redshirt freshman year. During the first three games of his sophomore campaign, Phillips has been superb yet still has the ability to take his game to another level. Add Quincy Russell, Torrea Peterson and Jordan Wade into the mix and all of a sudden OU’s defensive interior looks deep and talented.
3. Charles Tapper could be a special player. Now, everyone sees why the Sooners’ coaching staff began to rave about Tapper as soon as he stepped on campus. He’s unusually instinctive for a player with such a limited football background and his unique physical talents could result in him playing on Sundays. He’s strong, quick, fast and aggressive. Once he truly learns how good he can be, look out.
4. OU’s veteran safeties won’t lose their jobs anytime soon. Senior Gabe Lynn has been a playmaker for the Sooners at safety, and backfield mate Quentin Hayes has brought range and coverage skills to the secondary. True freshman Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas created plenty of buzz during the summer, but they face a tall task to supplant Lynn or Hayes in the starting lineup.
5. Maybe the Sooners do have quality linebackers. Senior Corey Nelson and sophomore Frank Shannon rank 1-2 in tackles for the Sooners. Nelson leads the squad with 20 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack. He’s added three passes defensed and two quarterback hurries, a sign of his versatility. Shannon has 19 tackles, including one tackle for loss and two hurries. That duo along with Striker have been extremely productive on the heels of a 2012 season that saw the linebackers disappoint and go largely unused.
Team of the week: Baylor. The Bears completely dismantled a Buffalo team that hung tough with Ohio State last weekend. There was no hanging tough in Waco for the Bulls, who were chased out of town with a 70-13 shellacking. During one unreal 11-minute stretch, Baylor racked up 576 yards of offense while averaging 12.5 yards a play. The Bears also scored touchdowns on their first eight drives, and probably would have scored a ninth had they not run out of time in the first half. Baylor has won six straight dating back to last season.
Disappointment of the week: Texas. First, the Longhorns lost 40-21 to BYU. Then, they lost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who was fired Sunday and replaced with Greg Robinson. Mack Brown said at the beginning of August he was confident this would be his best team since 2009. If the Longhorns aren’t careful, it could be his worst. Texas has at least a half-dozen losable games left on the schedule, including this weekend’s meeting with emerging Ole Miss.
Big (defensive) man on campus: Gabe Lynn. The Oklahoma safety has been maligned in the past for giving up huge plays in the pass, notably in the 2011 home loss to Texas Tech. But Saturday against West Virginia, the former cornerback was delivering the huge plays from his new position. In the third quarter, Lynn intercepted Mountaineers QB Paul Millard, then later scooped up a fumble and returned it 27 yards. The two turnovers killed West Virginia drives and helped keep the Mountaineers at bay even while the Oklahoma offense struggled.
Special-teams player of the week: Tramaine Thompson. The veteran playmaker showed why the Wildcats have one of the most dangerous return units in the country. Thompson’s 94-yard kickoff return to begin the second half put an underrated Louisiana Lafayette away. The return duo of Thompson and Tyler Lockett remains one of the best in the country.
Play of the week: The last time a Kansas wide receiver caught a touchdown pass, Justin McCay was still playing for Oklahoma. McCay, now a Jayhawk, vowed to end that ignominious streak, which dated back to Oct. 22, 2011. In the second quarter against South Dakota, McCoy hauled in a 5-yard pass from quarterback Jake Heaps at the back of the end zone that put Kansas ahead for good while ending the streak for good, too.
Stat of the week: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Baylor already has 16 touchdown drives of two minutes or less, which leads the nation. Oregon has 15. No other program is in double digits. The Ducks led the FBS last year with 45 such drives. Baylor is on pace this season for 104.
Quote of the week: “I haven’t even gotten out of the game. … I’d like to watch the video.” -- Texas coach Mack Brown, when asked after the BYU game whether Manny Diaz would remain his defensive coordinator. Brown fired Diaz the next day.
Running back Brennan Clay: The senior running back rushed for a career-high 170 yards on 22 carries, averaging 7.73 yards per carry. Clay came up big after the Sooners' passing game struggled. He used his physical, slashing style to carve up yardage against the Mountaineers. If Clay continues to perform at a high level, OU will have one of the Big 12’s top rushing duos with him and Damien Williams.
Safety Gabe Lynn: The senior looks comfortable after his offseason move to safety. Lynn had a major impact on the game with one fumble recovery and one interception in addition to his three tackles on the afternoon. His instinctive nature at the deep safety spot has been one of the pleasant surprises of the first two games for OU’s defense.
Defensive end Charles Tapper: He’s quickly becoming one of the best players on the Sooners' defense. The sophomore finished with five tackles and one quarterback hurry against the Mountaineers and was able to consistently work his way into the WVU offensive backfield. OU desperately needed to improve its pass rush, and Tapper is looking like the man who could do it after the first two games.
Spring Game Wrap-Up
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
TBD North Dakota State Iowa State TBD Louisiana Tech Oklahoma TBD North Texas Texas TBD Stephen F. Austin Kansas State TBD Samford TCU TBD Central Arkansas Texas Tech 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 8:00 PM ET Florida State Oklahoma State