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Snow problems in Sun Bowl

Sam Werner | Wednesday, January 19, 2011

EL PASO, Texas — A season of ups and downs ended on a high note for Notre Dame, as the Irish defeated Miami 33-17 to win the Sun Bowl Dec. 31.

Freshman quarterback Tommy Rees threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns, both to junior receiver Michael Floyd. Senior safety Harrison Smith tied a Sun Bowl and school record with three interceptions.

“Clearly, we’re gaining a lot of confidence,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Miami is a good football team. We’ve beaten some good football teams later on in the year as we’ve kind of come together and found our identity.”

The win also made Kelly the first Irish coach to win a bowl game in his first season, a feat that may have seemed unattainable to Irish fans when Notre Dame (8-5) sat at 4-5 after back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa in October.

Since the loss to the Golden Hurricanes, though, the Irish have played inspired football, beating Utah, Army, USC and Miami to end the season on a four-game winning streak for the first time since 1992.

The Irish got off to a fast start against Miami, scoring touchdowns on three of their first four possessions. The first two came via Rees-to-Floyd hookups of three and 34 yards, respectively, and sophomore running back Cierre Wood broke off a 34-yard touchdown run on Notre Dame’s first drive of the second quarter.

“We got off to a great start, getting the three scores early on,” Kelly said. “We felt like getting off to a great start was very important to us in the momentum of the game. From our standpoint, offensively and defensively, we played a complete game, especially in the first half.”

Even when Notre Dame’s drives ended, it didn’t have to wait long to get the ball back. Hurricanes starter Jacory Harris threw interceptions on three of his team’s first four drives — two to Smith and one to junior Robert Blanton. Down 21-0, Miami interim coach Jeff Stoutland elected to pull Harris — who he named the starter on Thursday — in favor of freshman Stephen Morris. Morris also threw an interception to Smith on his first drive.

“I felt real strong about Jacory, coming in,” Stoutland said. “I thought he was going to have a real good game, productive game. I just think he made a couple of mistakes.”

Even though he was the one on the receiving end, Smith said the interceptions could be attributed to the entire team.

“It was really just kind of a total defensive effort,” he said. “There were great reroutes. When you knock those receivers off and mess up the timing between the quarterback and the receiver, it really makes it easy for the safety.”

Kelly said that he felt the performance was a sort of vindication for Smith, who also made a game-clinching interception late in Notre Dame’s 20-16 win over USC Nov. 27.

“You saw the kind of hits that he’ll bring when he’s coming down, but he can also play off of the hash,” Kelly said. “A lot of people questioned his ability to play off the hash. I think he’s answered all of those critics quite well.”

Senior kicker David Ruffer added field goals of 40 and 50 yards, and the Irish led 27-3 at halftime. Ruffer later connected on a 19-yarder in the third quarter, before missing from 36 yards. The miss was the first of Ruffer’s career, ending a school-record streak of 23 consecutive made field goals.

Miami added two touchdowns in the fourth quarter on touchdown passes from Morris, but it was too little, too late as the Irish tacked on a field goal from sophomore kicker Nick Tausch to make the final margin 33-17.

After the early barrage, Notre Dame used a steady, if not spectacular, rushing attack to churn the clock. Senior running back Robert Hughes built on his solid performance against the Trojans with 81 yards on 27 carries. The more explosive Wood also rushed for 81 yards on just 12 carries. As a team, the Irish ran the ball 48 times for 196 yards, good enough for 4.1 yards per carry.

Kelly said that while one game wouldn’t turn around the fortunes of a program that has been mired in mediocrity for the better part of two decades, the four-game stretch at the end of the season would be an important building block heading into winter conditioning and, eventually, spring practices and the 2011 season.

“We still have more things that we have to get done, especially now that we’re going to have our players for a full year of weight training conditioning,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see a big jump from our football team, relative to their work volume and what they’re able to do for us. You’re going to see a huge difference in year two.”