NORMAN — Saturday night won’t be the first time Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard has heard the “Notre Dame Victory March” played at full tilt. The Oklahoma City native spent his childhood in Catholic schools and graduated from Bishop McGuinness — home of the Fighting Irish. He even made a recruiting visit to Notre Dame.
“It’s kind of a love-hate thing with Notre Dame. I grew up in a Catholic school my entire life. I was always a Notre Dame fan. Their fight song was our high school fight song,” he said. “It’s kind of like the Yankees. You either love them or you hate them.”
Luckily, for the eighth-ranked Sooners (5-1), he picked them. It doesn’t show in the stat column, but there hasn’t been a player more pivotal in their offensive success than Ikard.
It isn’t a surprise that Ikard has played at a high level this season. He was an All-Big 12 selection last season as a sophomore and even made his way onto some All-American teams. He’s turned into the heart-and-soul of OU’s offensive line in more ways than one.
“He’s the leader of our offensive line,” left tackle Lane Johnson said.
To guards and tackles coach James Patton, it goes beyond Ikard being a really good player. Ikard is 4.0 student, and his academic aptitude is the reason his final three college choices were Notre Dame, Stanford and OU. His intelligence extends to every facet of football.
Ikard is the one who calls out the Sooners’ blocking schemes. Defensive tackles are jumping around and linebackers are darting in and out, but Ikard has a remarkable ability to crouch down over a football and dissect all the madness.
“He can come off the field and tell me what happened. Even if it wasn’t his guy who made the hit, he’s usually got a pretty good idea.” Patton said. “When I go back and watch it Sunday morning it’s what he told me. You have to trust guys like that.”
The coaches do, and it’s the same with his teammates.
The Sooners’ season could have fallen off the rails before it started. Injuries forced returning center Ben Habern and guard Tyler Evans out before OU even practiced in pads. Habern simply moved from left guard to center and OU hasn’t really missed a beat with Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin becoming full-time starters at the guard spot.
Ikard gave both someone to lean on.
“Gabe’s been great,” Irwin said. “Gabe’s a really smart guy and he’s very familiar with the system and he knows what’s going on, so anytime we’re even a little bit unsure, he can help us out and make sure me and Adam are 100 percent sure what’s going on every play.”
The group will face one of this season’s biggest challenge when it faces the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (7-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Owen Field. It will be a game the Sooners have to win in the trenches, and Notre Dame has the best defense they’ve faced.
“They’re excellent on defense. Very big and very strong,” Ikard said. “They’re led by (linebacker) Manti Te’o. I’ve watched a lot of film on him. It seems like he never gets blocked. They’re really talented and really disciplined on what they do. We’re just going to have to practice well and scheme well to set up some big plays.”
Ikard watches a lot of film. He’s a perfectionist and won’t leave any stones unturned when it comes to preparing. What makes Ikard special is he never has to watch it by himself.
“He challenges guys to watch tape and invest their time in what they need to do to know about the schemes and what they’re getting through the week,” Patton said. “He’s a great kid and tremendous player.”
John ShinnFollow me @firstname.lastname@example.org