Knockout punch: Turnovers doom Irish against Oklahoma

Knockout punch: Turnovers doom Irish against Oklahoma
September 28, 2013, 6:00 pm

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The way Brian Kelly sees it, Notre Dame was pretty much doomed less than three minutes into Saturday's 35-21 loss to Oklahoma.

On Notre Dame's third play of the game, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker raced unblocked into Tommy Rees' blind side, knocking the ball into the air and into the waiting arms of Corey Nelson, who darted 24 yards for a touchdown.

Then, on Notre Dame's next offensive play, Rees' pass went off the fingertips of T.J. Jones and into the hands of Oklahoma's Frank Shannon for another interception. A few plays later, Sooners running back Damian Williams found the end zone from 11 yards out.

After two minutes and 45 seconds, Oklahoma led 14-0. 

"Offensively, you just can't turn the football over the way we did," coach Brian Kelly said. "If you take care of the football, we might be in overtime right now."

[MORE: Stoops: No revenge factor for Oklahoma]

Kelly liked the way his team battled back after being swiftly knocked to the mat, but it wasn't enough. Rees threw a third interception in the second quarter, coming on a third down in field goal range. Oklahoma converted that into another touchdown and went into the half leading 21-7.

While Rees' final stat line was horrific — 9-of-24, 104 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions — Kelly was adamant the poor performance wasn't just on his quarterback.

Kelly mentioned the first and third interceptions in particular in that regard — failing to block on a stunt on the first one, poorly-run routes on the other.

Jones owned up to the the third interception, saying he ran his route too shallow and DaVaris Daniels ran it too deep, creating a cluster in the middle of the field that resulted in the interception.

[INSIDE THE IRISH: Five things we learned]

Rees, though, put it all on himself. 

"As a quarterback, I take full accountability," he said. "If things aren't run the way they need to be, you have to erase the play and get a zero on it."

Notre Dame kept the game within reach for much of the second half, energized by George Atkinson's 80-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. That cut the deficit to 21-14, and after Oklahoma hit a pair of field goals, Rees found a wider-than-wide-open Troy Niklas for a 30-yard score.

But after the scoreboard read 27-21, it was all Oklahoma. Unlike last October, when Everett Golson and Manti Te'o made the plays Notre Dame needed to win late, it was Blake Bell, Sterling Shepard and the Oklahoma defense who came up clutch for the Sooners.

[WATCH: Brian Kelly postgame]

Facing a third and three on the drive after Niklas' score, Bell found Shepard coming across the field on a short pass, which Shepard took and burned the Irish defense for a 54-yard touchdown. Oklahoma went for two and got it and forced a three-and-out on Notre Dame's ensuing possession to all but seal the victory.

"There were some missed assignments, and you can't miss an assignment on a team like this because they're great enough to, if you're off one play, if you're somewhere you're not supposed to be, they're going to be there on that play," linebacker Carlo Calabrese said.

The loss was Notre Dame's first at home since October 2011, and that created a little postgame confusion — some Irish players immediately headed for the tunnel after the clock hit zero as the student section booed, expecting the players to come by them for the alma mater.

A Notre Dame spokesman said that was the product of some miscommunication — a policy was put in place earlier for players to head straight to the locker room after home losses, but since Notre Dame didn't lose at home last year it was a policy forgot by some players.

Whatever controversy arose from that mixup is of little importance. Of greater importance were the three turnovers and lack of execution when it mattered against a top-15 Oklahoma team, in a game Notre Dame had to win.

And beyond that, the loss all but brought Notre Dame's BCS hopes to a screeching halt.