Notre Dame football: ND unravels early in loss to Sooners

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - It was purportedly more miscommunication than a toxic streak in team chemistry as a handful of Notre Dame football players bolted up the tunnel Saturday while the singing of the Alma Mater took on a funereal tone for those who remained on the field.

The sloppy postscript, though, wasn’t nearly as unsightly as the first few moments of 22nd-ranked Notre Dame’s 35-21 unraveling at the hands of No. 14 Oklahoma at Notre Dame Stadium.

Two interceptions 20 seconds apart and in the first 70 seconds of the game, and a third later in the first half by regressing Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees, pushed ND (3-2) off its offensive game plan and almost immediately into catch-up mode. All three turnovers led directly to Sooner touchdowns, including a pick-6 on ND’s first possession of the game.

The introduction of the complementary quarterback concept, the revival of the Irish running game and some streaks and stretches of big plays for the ND defense couldn’t rescue the Irish from a retro burst of Rees to his turnover-prone days of 2011.

A week after managing an offense that produced the fewest total yards by an Irish team in five seasons, Rees finished Saturday’s game 9-of-24 for 104 passing yards. The only less prolific days he’s had in 23 career starts were last year, when he made a cameo start against Miami -- — when then-starter Everett Golson was held out a series for being late to a meeting - — and in the 2011 regular-season finale, when Rees was pulled for ineffectiveness in favor of Andrew Hendrix.

“You never expect to not pick up the simplest of stunts and have your quarterback get the ball stripped,” Irish coach Brian Kelly lamented, thinking the first play had been ruled a strip/sack and a fumble instead of an interception. “You never expect not to run the right route when you're supposed to. You never expect those things, but they happen. That's why we have ulcers in this business.”

That ND’s offense went out with a whimper in the fourth quarter didn’t help Kelly’s gastrointestinal state. After the Irish pulled to within 27-21 at the 14:10 mark of the fourth quarter, the final three ND possessions were three-and-outs.

A 54-yard catch-and-run from Oklahoma second-time starter Blake Bell to Sterling Shepard and a two-point conversion connection between the two provided what proved to be the exclamation point on only the second Sooner win in the 11-game history of the on-again, off-again series between the two teams that have spent the most weeks historically at the top of the AP rankings.

“I wasn't shell-shocked,” Rees said. “You have to bounce back between the play and stay positive and just keep moving forward. There is a lot of football left to play.”

So just what are the Irish playing for now?

With the only ranked team left on the schedule being Stanford, ND’s Nov. 30 opponent in the regular-season finale, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for the Irish to distance themselves from a choppy first five games and get into the top 14, the requisite to be considered for the BCS bowl lineup. So even a seven-game win streak might not be enough.

“I don't really care about that stuff,” Kelly said of the bigger picture. “That's for you guys to talk about. I've got a football team here (that) we're trying to develop and work with. You guys can have your own comments and decide what that means and you can put us in whatever bowl you want.”

Perhaps of a more immediate urgency is how does ND go about picking up the offensive pieces?

The heretofore missing link, the Irish running game, made a revival. The longest run by an Irish player in 13 seasons – 80 yards, untouched by junior George Atkinson III – helped boost him to a career-high 148 yards on 14 carries. And overall ND, the nation’s 99th-best rushing team coming into Saturday, amassed a season-high 220 yards on the ground, and averaged 7.6 yards a carry doing so.

But for just the third time in the last 48 games in which the Irish outrushed an opponent, ND lost on the scoreboard. It was also the first time in 16 games in which the Irish cracked the 200-yard mark rushing that the game ended in a loss.

“We're down 14 points, and I've got to go five wide receivers against a really good defense that matches up well against teams that do that,” Kelly said. “This (Oklahoma) defense was built to do the thing that we were doing down 14 points. That's what I didn't want to. I wanted to be in two tight ends and I wanted to run the football, and I wanted to run play-action and I wanted to be able to control the game that way.

“We got down, uncharacteristically, threw the ball away, had sacks, and those aren't what we do. That's not going to be our prescription for success. So offensively, you just can't turn the football over the way we did. If you take care of the football, we might be in overtime right now. Who knows?”

Oklahoma (4-0), remodeled schematically on both sides of the ball, had a running revival of its own, with quarterback Bell (12 carries, 59 yards) an integral part of a 212-yard rushing day. A year ago in a 30-13 ND victory in Norman, the Irish defense held the Sooners to 15 rushing yards, the seventh-fewest in OU history.

Bell also was sharp in the passing game, throwing for 232 yards on 22-of-30 accuracy and two touchdowns, despite having to leave the game briefly to rehydrate following some cramping.

“Games like this are why we sign the paper coming out of high school,” said Bell, a 6-foot-6. 253-pounder from Wichita, Kan., whom former Irish coach Charlie Weis tried unsuccessfully to lure to Notre Dame.

“It’s a huge game, not only for myself, but for the team and the program, So it feels good. All week long we knew we had to be physical with these guys.”

It didn’t take the Sooners long to send that message.

On ND’s first possession from scrimmage, linebacker Eric Striker came from Rees’ blind side on third and seven, and pounded him as he was moving his arm forward. The ball fluttered forward and landed in the arms of linebacker Corey Nelson at the Irish 24. He then returned his first career pick for a TD and a 7-0 Sooners lead 49 seconds into the game.

After Akinson returned the ensuing klckoff to the 34. Rees threw to TJ Jones on first down, but cornerback Aaron Colvin got a hand on it, and tipped it into the air and middle linebacker Frank Shannon gathered it in and returned the ball 17 yards to the Irish 32. Four plays later, Oklahoma had a 14-0 lead.

The infusion of Hendrix as a tag-team QB helped the Irish on their first scoring drive, capped by a Rees six-yard pass to Jones with 4:03 left in the first quarter. The two QBs were trading off on a series late in the first half and pushing for the tying score when Rees, from the Sooners’ 24-yard line, threw the third pick of the half.

Oklahoma seized the momentum and went up two scores on a 26-yard pass from Bell to Lacoltan Bester with 42 seconds left in the half. The Irish could get no closer than six points the rest of the way.

“The biggest thing is we can still be a good team and have a great season,” Irish offensive tackle and captain Zack Martin said. “Obviously, we’re not going to go to the national championship again, but we can still have a great season. We just can’t hang our head on this one.”

Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper (91) pressures Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER