SOUTH BEND – Past demons returned to haunt Notre Dame in a 35-21 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday.
Irish quarterback Tommy Rees threw three interceptions that led to 21 first-half points for the No. 14 Sooners (4-0), who ended a 10-game home winning streak for No. 22 Notre Dame (3-2).
Rees, who threw 14 interceptions in 2011, came into the game with only two interceptions this season.
“You never expect those things, but they happen,” coach Brian Kelly said of the turnovers.
“That’s why we have ulcers in this business.”
There was some confusion after the Irish’s first home loss since falling to USC on Oct. 22, 2011.
Some players went back to the team locker room after the loss, while others lined up to sing the school’s alma mater in front of the student section. After some boos from the students, most of the team returned to sing.
A Notre Dame spokesman said the plan put in place two years ago is that the team will no longer sing the alma mater after home losses.
“That was kind of miscommunication on our part,” left guard and captain Zack Martin said.
Miscommunication cost the Irish at the start of the game. Sooners linebacker Corey Nelson returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown after Rees was hit from behind by linebacker Eric Stricker on the game’s third play.
Rees gave the ball back to the Sooners on the next play when his pass was tipped to Oklahoma linebacker Frank Shannon, who returned it to Notre Dame’s 32. The return set up running back Damian Williams’ 11-yard touchdown run with 12:15 to play in the first quarter.
“It’s tough when you feel you gave the defense 14 points and then you lose by 14, that is definitely not a good feeling,” Irish receiver T.J. Jones said.
Notre Dame pulled within a touchdown when Rees hit Jones for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 4:03 to play in the first quarter.
But Rees threw his third interception with 5:25 to play in the second quarter as his throw was tipped into Wilson’s hands at Oklahoma’s 12.
Sooners quarterback Blake Bell, who finished with 232 passing yards and two touchdowns and 59 rushing yards, then engineered a 10-play, 88-yard scoring drive. Lacolton Bester capped the drive by hauling in a 26-yard touchdown catch with 42 seconds to play in the half.
“I don’t know about a dream-like start, but a good start,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “I was proud of our guys. We came out aggressive.”
The Irish forced the Sooners to go three-and-out on the first series of the second half, then running back George Atkinson III broke off an 80-yard touchdown run to pull Notre Dame to 21-14 with 12:31 to play in the third quarter.
“It just opened up, and I ran. I did my job,” said Atkinson, who ran for a career-high 148 yards as the Irish gained 220 yards on the ground.
Oklahoma responded to Atkinson’s long touchdown run with field goals from Mike Hunnicutt of 27 and 19 yards out to push the lead by to 27-14 by the end of the third quarter.
Notre Dame started the fourth like it started the third as Rees found a wide-open Troy Niklas for a 30-yard touchdown 50 seconds into the quarter, but Oklahoma stormed right back as Sterling Shepard turned a short pass into a 54-yard touchdown and then caught the 2-point conversion with 12:24 to play to produce the final score.
“It’s tough to fight back, but I’m proud of the way we did,” said Rees, who went 9-of-24 passing for 104 yards. “Obviously, the start hurt us in the long run.”