NORMAN, Okla. – The words “Play Like a Champion Today” are plastered on the walls leading from the locker room to the field at both No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 8 Oklahoma, a rich piece of tradition the storied schools happen to share.
Come Saturday night, a rare meeting between the programs will test the championship mettle for both the Fighting Irish (7-0) and the Sooners (5-1).
It’s just the second meeting since 1968 in a series that has fallen in Notre Dame’s favor throughout the years. Oklahoma’s only win in nine tries against the Irish came exactly 56 years ago in 1956.
Three times, the Sooners suffered their only loss of a season against Notre Dame, including the end of their NCAA record 47-game winning streak in 1957.
This time, a shot at a championship could be on the line again.
“We’re 7-0, and now we have the chance to be 12-0, and now we have a good team coming up,” said Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who is garnering Heisman Trophy buzz. “We can’t look past that, and we have to just look at Oklahoma, what they do, and work on being 8-0.”
Coach Bob Stoops didn’t spend much time harping on the historical implications of the rivalry, but his players certainly were made aware that Oklahoma is just 1-8 all-time against Notre Dame.
“That’s all great. It’s unfortunate that that happened, but it’s one of those things where we can’t really worry about that kind of stuff,” said center Gabe Ikard, who grew up a bit of a Notre Dame fan at a Catholic high school in Oklahoma City and considered playing for the Irish. “That makes a great story for the game and it sets it up well, but what it comes down to is two teams playing each other on the field.”
Said safety Javon Harris: “It’s ancient history. We’re here to try to make history.”
Seeking its ninth national championship, Notre Dame has built its undefeated start behind Te’o and the nation’s second-stingiest defense, allowing just 9.4 points per game. A bruising running game that produced two 100-yard rushers a week ago has helped overcome uncertainty at quarterback, where sophomore Everett Golson and junior Tommy Rees have split time.
Coach Brian Kelly said Golson will get the start against Oklahoma after sitting out last week’s win against BYU because of lingering issues from a concussion. He called Golson the healthiest he’s been in weeks because of previous shoulder and toe injuries.
Rees relieved Golson to lead Notre Dame to wins against Purdue and Michigan before playing start to finish against BYU.
“The challenge for us, really, is about how we raise our game in these big games,” said Kelly, whose team has outscored opponents by 30 points per game away from home this season. “We know Oklahoma is a fine football team. The challenge is always about how we bring our game up. And we have. We’ve played well on the road, and we’re going to have to play our best game of the year on the road. That, to me, is the biggest challenge for us.”
Oklahoma’s first-team defense has given up just one touchdown in three games, since yielding 213 yards rushing in a 24-19 loss to Kansas State. The Sooners, trying to get back in the mix to win their eighth national title, see in Notre Dame a chance to show they can do better against a power run game.
“They’re who you would expect Notre Dame to be: hard-nosed, hard-working, smashmouth-type, traditional-type football-playing kind of guys,” defensive end R.J. Washington said. “They’re not trying to do anything flashy. They’re just trying to go out there and beat you whatever way they can. I feel like teams with history like that still play like that. Notre Dame has that kind of history. We have that kind of history.”
Even if they may not be deeply familiar with all that history, the players understand that this game could be meaningful for years to come. Quarterback Landry Jones agreed that it could go a long way toward determining his legacy with the Sooners, his words coming less than 24 hours after Oklahoma showed a replay of its 1956 game against the Irish.
“Every game is important. So we approach every game that way,” Te’o said. “And I think we’ve come a long way, and I think at this point in time in the season, every game is a signature game.”