SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame football fans have been searching for a glimmer of hope since the first offensive series against Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game in Miami nine months ago.
If you think Manti Te'o felt beat up – both literally and figuratively – last January, try being a member of the Irish Nation. Perhaps no group has traversed the journey from euphoria to depression at a more rapid rate and many are still recovering.
The 2013 season-opening win over Temple gave Notre Dame followers a bit of respite, but Irish fans are experienced enough to know the difference between treating the symptoms and actually finding a cure.
The loss at Michigan wasn't terrible to accept, after all, the Wolverines were really good. Right?
No, this fan base is in desperate need of a fix, and after Michigan has proven to be mediocre, and Purdue and Michigan State worse. Saturday's battle with 12th-ranked Oklahoma at Notre Dame Stadium gave Notre Dame an opportunity, which is all that it can ask for, to take a small step toward redemption.
And the 22nd-ranked Irish did.
Wait, you may state, Notre Dame lost 35-21 and often looked discombobulated. But those that feel that way are missing the forests for the trees.
In the loss to the Sooners (4-0), Notre Dame did two things. At times the Irish (3-2) played good defensively and they ran ball effectively. Those are two tenets to success in Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's playbook ever since he arrived in South Bend four years ago.
“The bottom line from this offense is to take care of the ball,” Kelly said. “(And) Play good defense and these kids will battle their butts off and find a way to win.”
History shows Kelly is correct. His only problem with that philosophy on Saturday was the first part of the formula. Notre Dame turned the ball over three times, including twice within the first 1:10 of the game and immediately trailed 14-0 before Kelly's guys even knew what happened.
“With the group of guys that we have,” Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees said. “It's not too tough to fight back.”
And that is what Notre Dame did.
The skeptics will point to Oklahoma's 25 first downs. And they can focus on the 450 yards of total offense generated by the Sooners (including 212 on the ground). But repeatedly throughout the game, the Irish defense rose to the occasion and put itself – until a back-breaking play with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game – in position to still come out with a win.
“I'm really proud of the way that they competed in the second half,” Kelly said. Our defense was salty when they needed to be.”
Yes, they were.
Despite the fact that the Irish defenders were on the field for over 35 minutes, they managed to achieve some very positive moments.
Notre Dame was without its (arguably) best defensive lineman, as sophomore Sheldon Day sat out the game with an ankle injury for the second week in a row. That is now five defections or injuries (Aaron Lynch, Eddie Vanderdoes, Tony Springmann, and Chase Hounshell being the others) that this program has suffered in the last 18 months along the defensive front. Very few programs can withstand that, but the Irish are trying valiantly to do so.
The Irish stopped a strong Oklahoma offense on 9 of its 14 third-down conversions, including a third-and-one on two separate occasions.
The Sooners tried to convert a fourth-and-one at one point, yet got stuffed, and they even had a first-and-goal from the Irish two-yard line and were forced to kick a field goal.
Notre Dame limited Oklahoma to 21 points over the final 57:15. That's enough defense to prevail. Unless you throw three interceptions and have a quarterback play poorly, of which Rees did.
“Other than (the 54-yard touchdown pass by Oklahoma in the fourth quarter), we were doing a really good job defensively,” Kelly said, “against a very good offense.”
After finding itself in a 14-0 hole, Notre Dame forced the Sooners' offense into five punts, stopped them on downs once and forced a pair of field goals. Not bad at all considering the opponent.
Offensively, Notre Dame found its running game in George Atkinson III.
The junior had rushed for 125 yards all season coming into Saturday, but shattered that total, by gaining a career-best 148 yards, including an 80-yard sprint to the end zone, of which the Irish fans have been waiting three years to see.
“He's really good,” Sooner coach Bob Stoops said of Atkinson. “He's a powerful guy and fast. He hits the crease. He's a really good football player.”
The Irish entered Saturday's game averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, but ran at a 7.6 yards per carry clip against Oklahoma.
“It was a disappointing day,” Kelly said. “(But) I'm proud of our guys and the way they competed and got back to doing what we needed to do.
“Our goal here was to certainly try to find a way to run the football more effectively and we were able to do that.”
Solid defense and running the football are things to build on and Kelly gets that.