First road test looms large for Sooners

NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin will step on the Notre Dame Stadium turf with a complete understanding of the tradition that surrounds him.

“It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.

The Sooners are just days away from taking on Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday, their toughest nonconference road test since traveling to Florida State in 2011.

“[Notre Dame] has some of the same vibes because this is a really good team,” Colvin said. “It’s a traditional school and they’ve got a lot of history there. We know that the crowd is going to be hostile, much like Florida State was.”

OU prevailed on that night, leaving Doak Campbell Stadium with a 23-13 win over Florida State on Sept. 17, 2011. It was a tough, gritty win in a hostile environment. Exactly the type of win OU hopes to earn on Saturday.

How did they do it? OU opened the game with a plan to establish the run early and create balance on offense. The Sooners turned to their ground attack nine times during a 15-play touchdown drive to open the game, essentially taking the Florida State crowd out of it and grabbing momentum.

It’s an offensive game plan the Sooners would like to repeat. With quarterback Blake Bell making his first road start, OU will want to establish the run, ensure offensive balance and lean on its defense. But the Sooners face a tall task against a Fighting Irish defense that allowed just 15 rushing yards to the Sooners in Notre Dame’s 30-13 win last season.

“It’s a big test for us across the board for our five guys up front,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We need to be efficient running the football.”

First-down success will be critical. The Sooners ended up in too many third-and-long situations in their loss to the Irish a year ago, thanks to their 0.6 yard-per-carry average on 13 first-down carries. Being stuffed on first down helped contribute to OU's converting just 4 of 14 third-down conversion attempts.

“They try to get you behind the eight ball by not allowing you success on first down, which puts you in third-and-long situations,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “We have to do a good job of making efficient plays on first down, whether it’s running or throwing.”

The Sooners have expressed plenty of confidence in Bell despite it being his first road start, pointing to his game experience as the "Belldozer" in short-yardage situations during the past two seasons.

“I expect Blake [Bell] to handle himself in a great way,” Heupel said. “He’s been in a tough environment in big games and in critical situations on the road. Because of his experience he’s had, I expect him to handle it extremely well.”

But Bell didn’t see the field in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2011, making this the most hostile nonconference road environment he has played in during his career and an environment the Sooners simply can’t simulate in practice.

If Bell struggles -- or, quite possibly, even if he doesn’t -- the Sooners will probably have to lean on their defense. It worked against FSU in 2011, as the Sooners' defense beat up the Seminoles’ offense, even knocking quarterback E.J. Manuel out of the game while holding FSU to 246 total yards and 4.1 yards per play.

If OU’s defense shows up in a similar way on Saturday, it will likely take the crowd out of the game and increase its chances of having a joyous plane flight back to Oklahoma. If it doesn't, the crowd will get rowdy and the environment will get even more hostile, making life that much harder on Bell.

“You have to play good defense,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “You can’t give up big plays, you have to be able to keep the crowd out of the game, and that’s what Notre Dame did to us a year ago. We couldn’t get any momentum throughout the course of that game.”

The Irish’s victory in Norman could be considered the blueprint in many ways. Notre Dame made key plays -- on the ground and through the air -- on offense, dominated defensively and won the competitive plays when it mattered in the fourth quarter.

While OU has cruised to a 3-0 mark this season, plenty of questions remain, and the Sooners’ first road game of the season will answer questions even Heupel has about his offense.

“How are we going to play in a tough environment when things don’t go well?” he said. “How are we going to respond? Are we going to do the little things you have to do to win on the road in a tough environment and be a championship-type football team? We’ll find out a lot of that this weekend.”

If those questions are answered positively, OU could surge into the national title conversation, setting itself up as a dark-horse candidate, particularly if it looks impressive while securing a win over the Irish. If those questions are answered negatively, the Big 12 could become even more wide open than it already is.

“It’s an important road test to win in a tough environment where there’s been a lot of history and not a lot of teams have won,” Norvell said. “It would be a real notch for our football team to go up there, play well and get a win in that environment.”