NORMAN — Notre Dame let it happen twice before two minutes ticked off the first-quarter clock.
An opposing receiver wearing jersey No. 4 sprinted past the Irish secondary, wide open and targeted with on-the-mark, downfield passes that looked like sure touchdowns.
Three weeks ago, speedy Miami receiver Phillip Dorsett let two opportunities for a quick, stunning score against Notre Dame's vaunted defense slip through his hands.
But Saturday, if Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones notices his No. 4 breaking free down Owen Field?
It's a good bet Irish defenders will be left chasing Kenny Stills as he goes, goes, goes, goes, and doesn't stop until he goes over that goal line.
“We're quite aware of their ability to get vertical,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “We take great pride in our ability to minimize those big plays. We're going to have to do that again on Saturday if we expect to win.”
The No. 8 Sooners (5-1, 3-1 in Big 12 play) host fifth-ranked Notre Dame (7-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in a virtual BCS national championship elimination game. It's a chance for Oklahoma to firmly restake its claim as a legitimate title contender after a slow start to the season.
For Notre Dame, it's an opportunity to prove its worth on national television, in a hostile environment and against an offense with big-play ability unlike anything the so-far impressive Irish defense has seen.
Stills has hauled in long first-quarter touchdowns twice this season — a 68-yarder at UTEP in the season opener, and a 44-yarder last week at home against Kansas.
Justin Brown and Sterling Shepard have each made big plays downfield, too; fullback Trey Millard hurdled a Longhorn defender during his 73-yard catch-and-run two weeks ago.
“I don't know if it gives us an advantage,” Jones said of Oklahoma's offensive style. “A good defense is a good defense, regardless of what type of offense they're playing against. They're a good defense.
“They play well together and they're not going to let anything go by them. ... They're going to make you beat them. They're not going to beat themselves.”
Oklahoma's big-play ability hasn't been limited to the passing game; junior running back Damien Williams has already rushed for touchdowns of 65, 89 and 95 yards.
But against the run is where the Irish defense has been at its best; none of their seven 2012 opponents so far have scored a rushing touchdown. Notre Dame held off Stanford in overtime by stuffing the Cardinal on third- and fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
If the Sooners prove unable to shock-and-awe Notre Dame's defense with big plays, the game could be won and lost in the red zone.
Oklahoma is tied for the NCAA lead in red-zone scoring efficiency, having gotten points on 32 of 33 trips inside opponents' 20-yard lines. Much of that success — and the one failure — has come out the Belldozer package; backup quarterback Blake Bell has rushed for eight touchdowns this season, but also fumbled inside the 5-yard line during Oklahoma's loss to Kansas State.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, is second nationally in red-zone defense; opponents have scored points on a little more than half of their ventures inside the 20.
Although it isn't the same program it once was, Miami is the Notre Dame opponent with the most comparable big-play talent to that of Oklahoma.
After Dorsett's two drops on the opening drive Oct. 6, the only points the Hurricanes could muster all night came on a first-quarter field goal — still the only 3 points the Irish defense has allowed in first quarters all year.
If Stills or any of Oklahoma's other playmakers get open early on Saturday — the way Dorsett did three weeks ago — that could change fast.
“If they can throw the ball over our head, it puts us in a very difficult situation defensively,” Kelly said.