Notre Dame's win over Oklahoma last year was triggered by the Irish making a number of key plays down the stretch. Everett Golson's 50-yard strike to Chris Brown was memorable, but it's easy to forget it came with about half a quarter to play in a tie game.
That was the first play Notre Dame made. Manti Te'o's circus interception of a Landry Jones pass all but sealed the game, with the Irish tacking on 10 more points in the final four and a half minutes to win, 30-13.
"Last year, they made all the plays down the stretch in the last six minutes of the game, and that's what changed the game," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said Monday. "It was 13-13 with six minutes to go, and they make all the plays at the end."
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Stoops pointed to three other keys for Oklahoma this Saturday in South Bend: Win the turnover battle, convert on third down/stop Notre Dame on third down, and have good run/pass balance. All those keys went in Notre Dame's favor last year, but it was the fourth quarter execution that did the Sooners in.
Take those same keys and apply them to Notre Dame's 41-30 loss to Michigan earlier this month, and it explains a lot about the loss.
Michigan won the turnover battle, 2-1, although one of those picks came during an assuredly futile final drive for the Irish. Notre Dame converted on a higher percentage of third downs, but couldn't stop Michigan when it really counted. And the Irish weren't able to establish the run against a Michigan defense gunning for its backs, instead passing 53 times to 19 rushes.
But where the game was really lost was in the fourth quarter, in which Michigan made far more critical plays than Notre Dame. Devin Gardner's scramble for a first down on third and long set up a big-chunk pass to Jeremy Gallon, and when Notre Dame seemed to have momentum down seven the offense only mustered a field goal.
It arguably was Notre Dame's worst defensive performance in the Brian Kelly era — Notre Dame wasn't as physically overmatched as it was against Alabama, and didn't have a depth-chart crutch to stand on. It was in that game that Te'o's absence was the most apparent, with Irish defenders finding themselves mentally overmatched.
The defense came around against Michigan State, but Stoops' attack has more firepower than Mark Dantonio's. Still, Stoops saw a lot of the same principles of Notre Dame's 2012 defense in the Michigan State film, and came away impressed by it.
"They still look the same," Stoops said. "They still look very disciplined, and I appreciate that as a coach, how disciplined they are, how hard they play. They play with technique, they're strong up front. I appreciate the discipline and the structure of how well they play."
Taking a step back, that's what Notre Dame wants — a defense that doesn't look as if it's missing something. It's shown that outside of the Michigan State game, but not with any consistency. The more narrow goal, then, becomes consistency for all three units of the defense.
"You're talking about consistency up front, so on the defensive line we're looking for that consistency," Kelly said. "We're looking at the linebacker position. You know, we're replacing a guy like Te'o where you're looking for a playmaker at that position, then the physicality that we want.
"... Who is going to show up now is really going to be what we're asking. Are we going to see the group that showed itself against Michigan State consistently or the group that we saw the last couple weeks that played hot and cold? We're going to look for that consistency now from our defense."