NORMAN — For all the storylines — Landry Jones' magnificent three-game stretch, ESPN GameDay coming to town, historical context, etc. — surrounding the looming Oklahoma-Notre Dame top-10 showdown, defense is what will ultimately decide Saturday's victor.
“It's not a championship game or anything like that,” said Jones, OU's senior quarterback, when asked if this will be the biggest game of his career.
No, not technically, but Saturday's loser will walk off Owen Field all but eliminated from BCS title-game consideration.
Defense wins championships, the adage goes, but it also sustains any hope of winning championships. Just ask West Virginia.
There's little doubt which team — OU or Notre Dame — is superior on offense. But defense? That's not so clear, especially after the Sooners' last three showings.
Notre Dame's offense, beset by uncertainty and inconsistency at quarterback, has only eclipsed the 20-point mark twice — vs. Navy in the season opener, and against hapless Miami. But its stout defense, led by Heisman-candidate linebacker Manti Te'o, has made offensive firepower unnecessary to this point.
The Irish haven't allowed a rushing touchdown all season, evening going three straight games without surrendering any touchdown, period.
On the final two plays — third- and fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line — Oct. 13 against Stanford, Notre Dame defenders held Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor out of the end zone to seal an overtime win.
The Irish have sacked opposing quarterbacks 19 times and forced 17 turnovers, and all of that dominance starts with Te'o. The senior has recorded 69 tackles, intercepted four passes and recovered two fumbles so far this season.
Jones has played drastically better during Oklahoma's impressive three-game win streak, but with his penchant for pressure-induced turnovers, a defense like Notre Dame's could spell trouble.
“It's a huge test for us offensively,” said Sooners co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. “They are playing as well as anybody in the country defensively.”
Ditto for Oklahoma's defense. The Sooners' first unit hasn't given up a touchdown since Texas Tech's opening drive three weeks ago.
Since then, all opponent touchdowns have come in the fourth quarter with most of OU's starters resting.
The Sooners' defense really played well for three quarters against Heisman front-runner Collin Klein and Kansas State, but allowed two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in a 24-19 home loss.
The most striking difference between then and now? Takeaways.
Through the Sooners' first three 2012 games, their defense forced just one turnover — and it was against FCS opponent Florida A&M.
UTEP and Kansas State each went four quarters against the OU defense without turning the ball over. In the Sooners' last three games, though, they've recorded nine takeaways.
Against an Irish offense that has turned the ball over eight times — and fumbled it another eight times without losing possession — Oklahoma's newfound propensity for takeaways could be the difference Saturday.
“I think (takeaways are) critical and crucial to your defense,” said OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “I think that tells you some of our players are becoming better playmakers throughout the course of the season, and that's always a positive.”