SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame made it clear what the expectation was for 2013 before the season: Get to the BCS Championship again.
It's a new team defined by an old one — the Jan. 6, 2014 game in Pasadena is literally on their schedule in the Guglielmino Athletics complex. Making the BCS Championship last season set that expectation.
It's a goal that won't be achieved, as its fate was sealed Sept. 7 in Ann Arbor. Now, the next best thing — a BCS bowl — looks like a longshot.
Oklahoma scored three touchdowns off first-half turnovers and made plays when it mattered in the second half, beating Notre Dame, 35-21, Saturday in South Bend. Whereas last year's win over Oklahoma vaulted the Irish squarely into the national spotlight, Saturday's loss removes them from it.
"Don't really care about that stuff — that's for you guys to talk about," coach Brian Kelly said to the assembled media after Saturday's game. "I've got a football team here we're trying to develop and work with. You guys can have your own comments and decide what that means, and you can put us in whatever bowl you want."
Whether or not its coach cares about the big picture, Notre Dame needs to win its final seven games — including next week's matchup with Arizona State in Dallas and a Nov. 30 date with Stanford in Palo Alto — to get back into the BCS conversation.
But with issues on both sides of the ball, Notre Dame hardly looks like a BCS-quality team at this point.
If there was a positive for the Irish on Saturday, it was the effectiveness with which they ran the football — specifically George Atkinson, who bolted for an 80-yard touchdown and picked up 148 yards on 14 carries.
But Tommy Rees completed just nine of 21 passes for 104 yards and threw three interceptions, all in the first half. One was a pick-six, one gave Oklahoma excellent field position and another led to a 10-point swing, as it came with Notre Dame in field goal territory.
"We don't want to put this whole thing on Tommy," Kelly said. "It's everybody. We always go back to the quarterback around here. But this is about 11 players."
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There were missed blocks and poorly-run routes in there, but Rees' stat line for his last two games is jarring: 23-of-58, 246 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions. Notre Dame subbed in Andrew Hendrix for a few plays in the first half — a first this year — but it's unlikely he, or freshman Malik Zaire, is a realistic option to replace Rees at quarterback.
"Our offense is a lot, but Tommy is, in my opinion, the smartest quarterback in the nation," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "You could throw as much as you want at him, and he's going to be able to take it. I think it's just more everybody working with Tommy."
Defensively, Notre Dame did an excellent job limiting Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell in short-yardage situations but couldn't come up with the second-half stops it needed to stay within striking distance. Sterling Shepard's 54-yard sprint on a short underneath throw was the backbreaker, as Notre Dame's hopes were dashed as he blew by Jarrett Grace and the Irish secondary into the end zone.
There are no quick fixes, no mid-season acquisitions that'll breathe life into a 3-2 team. If Notre Dame can salvage a successful season, it'll come on the collective backs of the players who lost to Oklahoma on Saturday.
"The guys that you saw out on the field are the guys that we have," Kelly said. "We have to get them to play better consistently."