SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Football royalty collides Saturday on the campus of Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome. Oklahoma-Notre Dame. The Leprechaun and the Schooner. Luck of the Irish meets Sooner Magic.
Except luck and magic have nothing to do with how the Sooners and Irish ascended to exalted status in college football. Sort of like how luck and magic had nothing to do with Notre Dame's 30-13 victory in Norman a year ago, or the Irish's 9-1 series domination, and don't figure to have anything to do with this showdown.
Notre Dame blocked better and tackled better. Same as in 1952-53, and 1957, and 1961-62, and 1966, and 1968, and 1999.
Ed Frost, my historian friend whose family in 1952 drove from Hobart to Oklahoma City to rent a room at the Biltmore Hotel so they could watch the inaugural OU-Notre Dame game, said it well last year: “Notre Dame didn't win all those games by luck. They won with great coaches, great players, great blocking and tackling.”
The 1958 Notre Dame yearbook, referring to the epic 1957 upset that ended OU's 47-game winning streak, called the Sooners just “another undersized Southern team.”
Not every game in the 21st century is won that old-fashioned way anymore. But last year's was. So will this year's.
“You've got to block all those guys up front,” Bob Stoops said of Notre Dame's front line, which dominated last October, when the Sooner running game netted 50 yards on 21 carries. “They're very disruptive. Blocking those guys is a big challenge.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly admits his team is outgunned on playmakers. Maybe even at quarterback, where the Irish have a senior, Tommy Rees, with 775 career passes, and OU has Blake Bell making just his second career start.
But Kelly knows not every game is won by wonderful toys.
“Ideally you'd love to be able to … stop the run with even numbers,” Kelly said. “We were able to do that last year most of the time.”
Notre Dame coaching legend Ara Parseghian said the Irish in 2012 played a “perfect game” against OU, and he's not far off. Notre Dame had zero turnovers, only one penalty (for five yards) and didn't give up big plays. The only Sooner touchdown came after a fourth-down conversion.
Some called it Notre Dame's best game in Kelly's four seasons, and Kelly said Notre Dame excellence again will be required to win. Of course, the same is true of the Sooners, who are largely untested.
“We're going to have to play extremely well,” Kelly said. “We're going to have to be in great position, extremely disciplined across the board and play our best game of the season.”
But when your game is toughness and fundamentals, when your game is blocking and tackling, sustained excellence is more approachable. Hard to play a perfect game when you're throwing the ball over the place and trying to win the formation game.
That's one reason the Sooners have reverted to more running emphasis and will try to do so Saturday, against a Notre Dame team giving up 114 rushing yards per game.
“They're still an excellent defense for sure,” Stoops said. “I appreciate their structure, their fundamentals. You rarely see a guy not in position. You can tell they're coached well.”
Luck of the Irish? Pluck of the Irish is more like it. Which is why magic won't beat Notre Dame. The Sooners are going to have to win this one the old-fashioned way.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.