Sam Werner | Thursday, December 16, 2010
Notre Dame and Miami may enter the 2010 Sun Bowl with identical 7-5 records, but both teams took very different roads to end up in El Paso, Texas this New Year’s Eve.
A month ago, many Irish fans were fully expecting their team to be home for the holidays this year. Some fans even questioned if Irish coach Brian Kelly was the right man for the job after questionable coaching decisions led to a 28-27 loss to Tulsa the week after suffering an embarrassing 35-17 loss to Navy. The Irish bounced back though, and beat then-No. 15 Utah, Army and USC in succession for their first undefeated November since 2005.
“It’s definitely been a great feeling, the upswing that’s been going on in the month of November,” senior running back Robert Hughes said in a press conference Sunday. “Coach always talks about finishing strong in the month of November, and I think we’ve definitely made strides towards that.”
Kelly said that the mounting wins created a “cumulative effect” of belief among the Irish team.
“Quite frankly, they have some confidence,” he said. “When you go to USC, beat USC at their place — you’ve got to fly all the way across the country, you’ve got to prepare for it, you’ve got to overcome adversity. They’ve got some confidence. I’m not saying they’ve got a walk about them, that air of invincibility, but they have some confidence.”
The wins against the Utes, Black Knights and Trojans were also freshman quarterback Tommy Rees’ first three games as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. During that stretch, Rees threw for 492 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. Kelly said the extra bowl practices would be very important to Rees’ development.
“It’s not a pressure packed situation,” Kelly said. “You don’t have 72 hours to get a game plan in. It’s a combination of film study recognition, as well as getting reps with the first group. This is another spring ball under his belt as a starter and that’s very valuable for him.”
The Hurricanes enter the game with question marks at the quarterback position. Junior Jacory Harris entered the season as a Heisman hopeful, but has struggled this season, throwing for 1,646 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Harris suffered a concussion during Miami’s Oct. 30 loss to Virginia, and just returned last weekend.
While the Hurricanes’ offense has struggled, ranking 58th in the nation in scoring, the defense has allowed just 19.7 points per game, good enough for 21st in the NCAA.
“Defensively they play fast,” Kelly said. “I think they’re two in pass efficiency in defense, a top-20 defense. It’s what you thought about Miami. This is still a very, very talented football team. They have as much talent as USC does on defense.”
Miami will head to El Paso with uncertainty on the sideline, as well. The university fired coach Randy Shannon on Nov. 27 after four seasons at the helm. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden was rumored to be close to signing a contract with Miami, but those whispers seem to have quieted down. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will serve as interim coach until the Hurricanes find Shannon’s replacement.
Irish players easily related to the pressures of a coaching change, as they themselves were going through one just a year ago.
“It’s definitely a tough time, especially when you lose the head of your program,” Hughes said. “You go through these stages where you’re trying to find who’s the next guy in line, who I take commands from.”
Even though the Irish and Hurricanes haven’t faced each other since 1990 — before many current players were even born — both Hughes and senior nose guard Ian Williams talked about how excited they were to jumpstart the rivalry. Notre Dame leads the overall series 15-7-1, including its famous win in 1988 that propelled the Irish to their 11th national championship.
For Williams, the Sun Bowl will be his first action since tearing his MCL during Notre Dame’s loss to Navy Oct. 23. But he said on Sunday he is “100 percent.”
“I’ll be glad to be back and the team’s very excited to continue this rivalry with ‘The U,'” he said.
Williams added that he had a little personal motivation when lining up against the Hurricanes. When he was being recruited, the Florida native attended Miami for a junior day, but the Hurricanes did not offer a scholarship. The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Williams said they told him he was “too small.”
“They’ll find out Dec. 31,” Williams said.