NORMAN — Oklahoma is averaging 271 rushing yards through three games this season, an impressive showing and the result of more mobility at quarterback, a strong group of running backs and a tough, physical offensive line.
Despite their tremendous success thus far, the first real test of the season comes Saturday, when the Sooners travel to South Bend, Ind., to face Notre Dame.
“It's no disrespect to anybody that we've played up to this point because they are good and you have to prepare every week … but this will be the best defensive line that we've faced by far and possibly the best we'll see all year,” said OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. “You look at their defensive line across the board and there's not a weak guy, and that doesn't happen very often in college football.”
The game is an opportunity for Oklahoma to show that its success in the run game is for real, but also a chance to truly demonstrate the improvements made since last year.
It was last October when the Sooners managed only 15 rushing yards on 24 attempts in a 30-13 home loss to the Fighting Irish. The embarrassing showing in the run game made Oklahoma's problems up front even more evident.
Coach Bob Stoops fired offensive line coaches James Patton and Bruce Kittle and replaced them with Bedenbaugh, who has emphasized physical toughness.
One bit of evidence that shows Bedenbaugh's impact so far is junior tackle Tyrus Thompson's quick comeback from an ankle injury. He hurt it late in the Sooners' win over West Virginia, but didn't miss any practice time.
“I wasn't here last year, but I don't know what would have happened last year in that same situation, but it's really a group mentality is what it is,” Bedenbaugh said. “You are accountable to the guy next to you. You are accountable to your teammates, and I know Tyrus is starting to learn that.
“He was hurt, and he fought through it. He toughed through it and played in the game and played pretty good.”
The Irish lost linebacker Manti Te'o from last year's defense, but returned tons of its key guys, not the least of which is defensive tackle Louis Nix III, one of the best defensive linemen in the country.
“They were definitely more physical than we were on the line of scrimmage last year,” said senior center Gabe Ikard. “We've run the ball well as an offensive line this year, but this is the game that's gonna determine where we're at right now as an offensive line and the running phase of our offense. It's going to be a really tough test. We're excited to see where we're at.”