SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Senior cornerback and team captain Aaron Colvin stood up in Oklahoma’s locker room before the pregame coin toss and challenged his teammates to make a statement right off the bat.
“Whoever goes out there first has to set the tone,” Colvin recalled screaming to the entire team. “We’ve gotta let them know that we’re here, and we’re ready to play.”
The Oklahoma defense answered its captain’s call, intercepted passes on two of the game’s first four offensive snaps and helped the Sooners take a quick two-touchdown lead that ultimately became the difference in their 35-21 statement win Saturday.
On Notre Dame’s third play of the game, sophomore Eric Striker hit quarterback Tommy Rees, forcing a half throw, half fumble that senior linebacker Corey Nelson nabbed out of the air and returned 24 yards for a touchdown.
The very next play from scrimmage, Rees’ pass bounced off a receiver and was bobbled, then intercepted by sophomore linebacker Frank Shannon. Running back Damien Williams scored on an 11-yard run four plays later.
Notre Dame didn’t go quietly, scoring on a couple big offensive plays and even cutting its deficit to six points early in the fourth quarter, but never could quite recover from its atrocious start.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, appears ticketed for the Top 10 after Saturday’s road victory. The Sooners’ defense played well in the first three games of the season — home wins over Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa — and the offense seemed to come together with Blake Bell at quarterback two weeks ago against the Golden Hurricane.
But questions remained about the Sooners considering their relatively weak three-game opening to the schedule. Could this team duplicate those performances on the road in one of college football’s greatest venues?
Oklahoma answered with an emphatic “yes” Saturday, although the Sooners weren’t without their fair share of mistakes.
Notre Dame running back George Atkinson III broke through Oklahoma’s defense early in the third quarter on an 80-yard touchdown run, and Rees found a wide-open Troy Niklas for a 30-yard touchdown pass in the fourth.
On offense, the Sooners struggled in short-yardage situations and in the red zone, converting only five of 14 third downs and scoring a touchdown on just one of four trips inside the Irish 20-yard line.
But on the whole, Saturday’s victory was enormously positive, especially considering the poor taste last year’s game against Notre Dame left in the Sooners’ mouths.
The Irish dominated the fourth quarter last October in a 30-13 win on Owen Field, where the Sooners managed only 15 rushing yards.
This time around, though, it was Oklahoma coming up with clutch plays and impressive efficiency in the second half. The Sooners held possession of the ball for more than 22 minutes after halftime, and OU’s defense forced Notre Dame to punt on its final three series of the game.
“A year ago I thought we lost the game in the last half of the fourth quarter, and we were determined not to let that happen this time because it was still a two-possession game,” said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
The Sooners, their 2013 nonconference slate wrapped up, host TCU next Saturday on Owen Field.
“We’ve got a chance to be really good,” Stoops said. “But we’re a work in progress. It’s only our fourth game.”