Pressure won't bulldoze the Belldozer

Murray Evans
Associated Press

NORMAN, Okla. - For a quarterback with exactly one collegiate start, Blake Bell is about as prepared as one can be to face a marquee opponent on the road.

That’s how Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops sees it. The Sooners expect a calm demeanor from Bell on Saturday when No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0) plays at No. 22 Notre Dame (3-1), because while the junior didn’t make his first start until Sept. 14 against Tulsa, he’s played in plenty of big games during his career.

“He’s a great competitor, and he’s been in a lot of critical, important situations, and he’s handled them well,” Stoops said.

“I would say yes, it does give him an advantage that way. 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, his read or where he goes with the ball.”

Before this season, Bell was used primarily in the run-oriented “Belldozer” short-yardage package, in which the Sooners tried to take advantage of his 6-foot-6, 252-pound frame. He played in 20 games during his freshman and sophomore seasons, rushing for 372 yards and 24 touchdowns.

One of those scores came in a 30-13 loss to Notre Dame last October. It was the first rushing touchdown Notre Dame surrendered in 2012.

“He’s made a lot of big plays for us on the road and in big games,” senior center Gabe Ikard said of Bell. “I don’t think pressure’s one of the things that’s going to affect him. He’s been in big moments.”

Bell lost a much-hyped preseason battle for the starting job to freshman Trevor Knight. But Knight proved ineffective passing the football against Louisiana-Monroe and West Virginia, then suffered a bruised knee.

Bell came on in relief and finished off a 16-7 win over the Mountaineers, then took a star turn in a 51-20 romp over Tulsa, completing 27 of 37 passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns — the most yards and touchdowns ever by an Oklahoma quarterback making his debut as a starter. The performance earned him Big 12 Conference offensive player of the week honors.

“I felt comfortable back there,” Bell said. “As a quarterback, you never want to feel like you’re not comfortable.

That’s when you are starting to move around and get out of the pocket when you don’t need to. I just try to keep calm and stay back there. The (offensive) line did a great job and blocked well.”

Besides the Notre Dame game, Bell has seen action in other critical situations for the Sooners. Last year, he scored on a 4-yard run with :04 left in regulation to force overtime against Oklahoma State, a game Oklahoma eventually won 51-48. He also earned Insight Bowl offensive most valuable player honors as a freshman, scoring three touchdowns in a win over Iowa.

In a 63-21 rout of Texas last season, Bell rushed for four touchdowns.

“I think being out there last year in some big situations — Notre Dame and Okie State and stuff like that — you feel a little bit of a presence back there,” Bell said. “Obviously, I’m not dropping back and throwing last year. Still, being in those big-game situations, it helps a little bit.”

The main question surrounding Bell this week is if he can replicate his performance against Tulsa in a much more difficult environment and in more challenging circumstances. As successful as Oklahoma has been through the years, winning seven national championships, the Sooners are 1-9 all-time against the Irish. Oklahoma’s only win in the series came in 1956, when the Sooners won 40-0 in South Bend.

“I think he’s certainly going to try,” Ikard said. “He’s been preparing very well. It was very beneficial for him to get a whole week to prepare before we get into game week. He’s very confident after his performance against Tulsa. I think he’s ready to play well again.”

Stoops said he expects all his quarterbacks to be “very balanced” in their approach to the hoopla surrounding a big game.

“We’ve always told our guys even here, whether it’s big games at home or no matter where they are, let everybody else be excited and jumping around, you just stay over here and stay cool and be ready to execute,” Stoops said.

“It’s all about being calm, being cool, ready to be precise in how you’re playing in your reads and where you’re going with the ball, and communication at the line and run the offense. Let everyone else be excited and nervous. You just stay cool about it.”

Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell throws before an NCAA college football game against Tulsa in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)