SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Blake Bell played another excellent game in Oklahoma's 35-21 win at Notre Dame, completing 22 of 30 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns.
The junior also displayed his ability to make things happen with his legs, picking up 59 yards on 12 carries.
But among his most notable rushes were the unsuccessful ones, short-yardage carries that used to be automatic for Bell.
Early in the second quarter, Oklahoma faced a fourth-and-1 situation at Notre Dame's 43-yard line. Tight end Brannon Green and fullback Aaron Ripkowski entered the game, seemingly setting up the first play from the famous “Belldozer” formation all season.
But the Sooners called a timeout, returned to the field in a different formation, but still had Bell carry the ball. He gained no yards and OU turned it over on downs.
Notre Dame carried the momentum from their defensive stop all the way to Oklahoma's 24-yard line before quarterback Tommy Rees threw his third interception of the half.
Bell again tried short-yardage runs on the Sooners' first two drives of the second half, but picked up no yards on a third-and-1 — forcing a punt — then lost three yards on the next series on a third down at Notre Dame's 6-yard line.
But none of the short-yardage attempts came out of the traditional Belldozer package, which always featured three backs surrounding Bell.
The formation, of course, made Bell an immensely popular figure among Oklahoma fans when it first debuted two seasons ago at Kansas State. Over that stretch as Landry Jones' backup, Bell scored 24 rushing touchdowns, one of which came in the fourth quarter of last October's home loss to Notre Dame. That score was the first rushing touchdown the Irish surrendered to that point in the season.
Asked two weeks ago if the Belldozer package might be used this season, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said the formation “still has its place.”
“Let's face it, third-and-1, or third-and-goal at the 1, or third-and-goal at the 2, it's still important that you score,” Stoops said. “It's still important that you pick up the first down. So, you know, there will be a place for it. Definitely.”
Stoops has said since the preseason — before he named Trevor Knight his season-opening starting quarterback — that, if Bell won the job, he might be hesitant to dial up Belldozer plays because he wouldn't want his starting quarterback taking the sorts of hits he might take in those short-yardage situations.
But through Bell's two starts, he's recorded 22 carries, including an 11-yard quarterback draw that left him on his back with a painful leg cramp. The run came after Bell had limped to the line of scrimmage.
For all the Sooners' offense did well Saturday, it wasn't great on third-down conversions — OU converted only five of 14 attempts — or red-zone offense. The Sooners scored a touchdown on just one of their four trips inside the Notre Dame 20-yard line.
After Bell returned from receiving an IV in the locker room for his cramps, he led Oklahoma on a 5-play, 75-yard drive, capped by a 54-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard that all but put the game out of reach for Notre Dame.
“It's like a legend,” said senior center Gabe Ikard, one of Bell's roommates. “It's like the legend of the Belldozer. … He's like a folk hero. He just goes out, and then all of a sudden comes back and throws a strike to Shep for a touchdown. He was battling today.
“He got some tough yards with his feet and took some big hits.”
The legend of the Belldozer is giving way to a different Blake Bell, one who manage the offense efficiently, make key throws and limit mistakes.
But if Bell is going to carry the ball in short-yardage situations anyway — or while he's cramping, for that matter — why wouldn't Oklahoma coaches protect him with extra blockers in the backfield?