There had been glimpses, for sure. Glimpses that redshirt-freshman quarterback Everett Golson might be more difference-maker than game manager. More legitimate threat than threat to keep both teams in the game. Last night in Norman, Golson turned the proverbial corner, authoring the best game of his seven-game Irish career against the best team he's faced to date.
Golson completed 13 passes -- barely 1/3 of his counterpart's total. He threw just 25, less than half the number fired from the other side of scrimmage. And his 177 yard, 0 touchdown, 0 interception performance is unlikely to garner even Independent Player of the Week status (it indeed exists).
But Golson was everything head coach Brian Kelly and a suddenly growing group of Irish fans had hoped for vs. the #8 Sooners: a poised dual-threat leader, competitor, and offensive weapon.
Chief among his contributions were 64 rushing yards on 11 rushes -- some designed draws, some breathtaking scrambles, all crucial to the final margin.
Perhaps the best indicator of Golson's evening is this: Had you told me he had 300 total yards, I'd believe you. Had you told me it was closer to 160, I'd have thought it possible. But in either case, it was clear who the most valuable quarterback was on Owen Field.
Offensive Game Balls: Junior T.J. Jones secured one-third of Notre Dame's completions last night, finishing with five receptions for 55 yards and three first downs. Aiding his efforts was senior Tyler Eifert, the nation's best tight end securing two of his three receptions for first downs, the third a contested catch near the Irish goal line that gained just four, but made it possible for Notre Dame to score the go-ahead touchdown: a one-yard Golson plunge one snap later on third down.
Eifert also executed a unique double-team block -- in that he blocked two Oklahoma defenders -- that sprung free classmate Cierre Wood for the game's first touchdown, a 62-yard untouched scoring burst through the heart of the Sooners defense.
Senior tailback Theo Riddick again claimed the offense's work horse role, rushing 17 times for 74 yards while adding a crucial 12-yard reception to help set up an Irish score. Riddick's 15-yard touchdown run on 3rd and 5 late put the final touches on a what appeared nationally as a blowout win.
LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, C Braxston Cave, RG Mike Golic, Jr., and RT Christian Lombard made all of the above possible, playing their best game as a quintet -- considering the opposition -- to date. (Our weekly Eye in the Sky film review will better showcase their efforts.)
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco deserves immediate mention, but great coaches need players to do their bidding, and Te'o is among the best in America (as Diaco said, "any player, any team, any position…).
Te'o finished with 11 tackles, a momentum-changing sack of Sooners quarterback Landry Jones, and the game's most important defensive play -- a diving interception of a pass defended by classmate and fellow inside 'backer Dan Fox.
If Te'o and the Irish defense continue in this manner through Thanksgiving weekend, the Heisman Trophy might be the second-most important trophy the senior leader hoists this winter.
Defensive Game Balls: Again paramount to the team's success was its rock in the middle of the program's best defense in two decades: nose guard Louis Nix. The affable junior holds the point vs. double teams, pushes the pocket when foes attempts to block him solo, and in general makes everyone better around him.
On a team full of most improved candidates, of this there is no doubt: Nix is the most improved player of the Kelly era -- a player who could not position himself into a proper football stance in the fall of 2010 now ranks among the nation's 2-3 best nose guards while playing for one of the two best defenses in the college game.
Freshman cornerback Keivarae Russell deserves mention for his efforts tackling after the catch, far and away the most important job requirement of a field side cornerback in a scheme designed to allow the short pass to the flat as the opponent's chief mode of aerial transport.
The aforementioned Fox is likely to appear on a film review for his efforts in short zone coverage -- the pass defended on Te'o's decisive pick the most notable of his efforts.
Diaco cemented his front-runner status for the Broyles Award, presented annually to the nation's top assistant coach. His defense limited Oklahoma to 15 rushing yards on 24 carries, just 379 total yards (their lowest of the season, and most vs. the Irish this fall) and an incredible 17:26 time of possession total over the final three quarters of the contest.
Oklahoma's 13 points tied for the fewest scored by the Sooners on their home field since TCU held them to 10 during the 2005 season opener.
A true sophomore, Brindza has to his credit the following in a six-game career as place-kicker: a game-winning kick (Purdue), a game-tying kick to force overtime (Stanford), a game-clinching kick (Oklahoma).
Struggling of late with misses in two of his last three entering the contest, Brindza drilled three of four offerings through the uprights last night, his 46-yarder with 3:22 remaining that gave the Irish a 23-13 cushion marking the most nationally relevant of his 14 successful field goals to date.
Brindza added boots from 44 and 34, missing a momentum-killing chip shot from 25 as well.
Backup kick returner Cam McDaniel deserves mention as well. Subbing for ill classmate George Atkinson III, McDaniel made the most of his opportunities, regularly finding room where none appeared and churning out 77 return yards on four Oklahoma kicks in front of the Irish goal.
Said Kelly of McDaniel: "Cam McDaniel got the game ball tonight. As you know, he wore 21 in honor of one of his teammates that tragically passed away. He was called on during the week because we knew we were going to play some nickel and dime, and he played some DB for us this week. And of course when George got sick, we had to get him ready for some running back as well. He's just been that kind of team player and he was outstanding on special teams today, so he got the game ball."
The Numbers Game -- Offense
- The Irish improved to 14-0 when throwing less than 30 passes in the 34-game Brian Kelly era. Six of the 14 wins have occurred this season including each of the last five contests...
- Notre Dame's 30 points was its highest total vs. a team ranked among the nation's Top 20 defensively since September 2011. The Irish had scored 21 points or fewer in eight of their last 10 contests dating back to mid-November 2011...
- Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood combined for 148 rushing yards and two touchdowns vs. the Sooners. Last week the senior pair together totaled 261 in a win over Brigham Young...
- Notre Dame is 8-0 for the first time since 2002 and just the 8th time since Ara Parseghian took the helm in 1964…
- Notre Dame is 39-2 since the beginning of the 2005 season when it out-rushes its opponent.
- The Irish received rushing scores from at least three different players (Riddick, Wood, Golson) for the second time this season. Notre Dame had a quartet of runners score vs. Miami earlier this month...
The Numbers Game -- Defense
Manti Te'o's fifth interception of his career was also his fifth this season, the number tying him with 1995 star Lyron Cobbins and 1966 standout John Pergine for the most in a single-season by a Notre Dame linebacker.
- The Irish defense's streak of 10 straight games without allowing a rushing touchdown was broken Saturday night. Oklahoma backup quarterback Blake Bell dove in from one yard out to tie the score at 13 in the fourth quarter. The Irish defense has allowed touchdowns in just six of 23 opposing marches inside its 20-yard line
- Notre Dame was the last of 124 FBS schools not to allow a rushing touchdown this season.
- Notre Dame's defense has allowed the following touchdown totals since Game 10 of 2011: 1, 4, 1, 1, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, and 1…
- Prior to Saturday night, Notre Dame had held each of its last six opponents below 300 total yards. Oklahoma gained 373, joining Navy (341) as the only foes to top the 300-yard mark vs. the Irish this season…
- Over its last 21 games, the Irish defense has yielded a total of 23 third quarter points. 18 of the last 21 foes have failed to score in the third quarter vs. Notre Dame...
- Notre Dame's defense allowed its first points in the first quarter this season. Oklahoma kicked a 28-yard field goal to conclude its opening drive...
- The Irish defense has yielded two touchdowns or fewer in 20 of its last 25 contests; surrendering just one or zero in 12 of the 20 including last night…
- Oklahoma managed just 15 rushing yards vs. the Irish. The Sooners gained just 44 total yards in the third quarter compared to 165 by the visitors...
- Notre Dame's defense has allowed a total of 72 points this season, second nationally behind defending national champion Alabama (58). Both the Irish (fumble) and Crimson Tide (kick return) have allowed a non-offensive score this season.
- Manti Te'o recorded a sack and an interception vs. the Sooners; it was the first time he recorded both in a contest in his 43 career starts. Te'o recorded 10 tackles Saturday; his sixth double-digit tackle game of 2012.
O'Malley's notebook presents a handful of game balls, reviews the contest's decisive moments, and offers numbers of note in Saturday's 30-13 bundling of Oklahoma in Norman.
Te'o, Golson win MVP honors; game balls to Diaco, Nix, Jones, Eifert, Riddick, and the O-Line…
Lewis-Moore and Te'o celebrate during win No. 8