Dec 31, 2010, 6:20 PM EDT
Irish fans have heard this story before. Two storied programs come into a bowl game with millions of eyes watching. One walks out a shell of its former self. The other, with sky-high expectations for next season after an impressive performance. Only this time, it’s Irish fans buzzing with excitement after their team took another proud football program to the wood shed, flipping a script almost 20 years in the making.
In a battle of two 7-5 teams, Notre Dame looked like the only team that wanted to play this afternoon, with the Irish scoring touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, taking a 27-3 lead into halftime before cruising to a 33-17 win over Miami in the Sun Bowl. Paced by junior wide receiver Michael Floyd’s six catches, 106 yards, and two first half touchdowns, an Irish victory was never really in doubt against a Hurricane’s team that was favored walking into the snow-covered El Paso stadium.
Here’s what we learned in Notre Dame’s 33-17 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl, giving the Irish their first 8-5 season in school history.
1. If this is it for Michael Floyd, he certainly left us with something to talk about.
Receiving the Sun Bowl MVP trophy after the game, fans serenaded Floyd with “One More Year!” chants, a sentiment quickly taken up by the junior wide receivers teammates who joined in the shouting.
We’ve had our say (more than once) about Floyd’s NFL decision, but if he does decide to walk away from Notre Dame, he’ll do it as the school’s leader in touchdown receptions with 28, his two touchdown catches against Miami surpassing Jeff Samardzija’s 27. That’s 28 touchdowns in 28 games for the junior from St. Paul, Minnesota, who lost quite a bit of time during his three seasons thanks to a knee and collarbone injury.
Miami opened the game in press coverage on Floyd with talented cornerback Brandon Harris, another junior mulling a departure to the NFL draft. That decision backfired, as Floyd beat the Hurricanes on both short and long patterns, showing a diversity in his game that didn’t exist in his first two seasons in South Bend.
There might still be questions about Floyd’s speed, but it’s hard to take those worries too seriously when you watch the 6-foot-3 receiver run past potential first round cornerbacks on his way to dominating a team that made the receiver their defensive priority.
We’ll find out soon enough what Floyd and fellow junior Kyle Rudolph are going to do, but if Floyd’s performance in the Sun Bowl was his swan song, Irish fans should be happy whether or not they get an encore.
2. Regardless of what the future holds for Tommy Rees, he saved Notre Dame’s season.
The baby-faced freshman quarterback who loves Glee may become the next great signal caller for the Irish or may go the way of former freshman starter Matt LoVecchio. Either way, he deserves a great deal of credit for stepping in at quarterback and helping the Irish finish their first season with four straight wins since 1992.
The season could’ve gone a lot differently for Rees, who had an ignominious start to his career even before he threw the game-ending interception against Tulsa in field goal range. But Rees showed moxie far greater than you’d expect in a true freshman, and the decision to forgo his high school basketball season and the second half of his senior year and enroll at Notre Dame early is one of the main reasons why Rees has put himself at the front of the line in the competition to be the quarterback of the future for the Irish.
Rees only completed a shade over 50 percent of his throws, but was efficient in his decisions, didn’t turn the ball over, and showed great poise in the face of a Miami pass rush that battered and bruised him. Rees consistently stepped up and made big throws, whether they were first half completions to Tyler Eifert, or game-icers to John Goodman and TJ Jones.
Before the game, Kelly said Rees had to play well for the Irish to win the football game. Throwing two touchdown passes against zero interceptions (and being a few finger tips away from two more touchdowns) certainly qualifies, especially against a team that had only given up seven passing touchdowns all year.
Only time will tell us Tommy Rees’ legacy at Notre Dame, but his impact on the 2010 season can’t be overstated.
3. Even without a 100-yard rusher, Hughes and Wood provided the ground game needed to win.
Sure, Notre Dame finishes the season without a 100-yard game from a running back this year. But both Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood provided the thunder and lightning needed to control the game clock and balance an offense that couldn’t just rely on a passing game.
While Brian Kelly isn’t one for the time of possession stat, he used Hughes and Wood to dominate the playclock, with the Irish winning the battle convincingly, holding onto the football for over 37 minutes to Miami’s 21. Hughes only averaged three yards a carry, but his 27 carries were a career high for the senior playing his last game in a Notre Dame uniform, and his bulldozing style wore down a Hurricanes defense that spent a lot of time on the field.
Hughes’ inside running provided a perfect counterbalance to Cierre Wood’s afternoon, where the sophomore broke multiple big plays and showed a great burst in the open field. After starting slowly, Wood finishes the season as the team’s leading rusher, besting Armando Allen’s total by eight yards and averaging a very respectable 4.9 yards per carry.
With Theo Riddick providing some Wildcat looks, the Irish ran the ball 47 times amongst the trio, for a very respectable 4.7 yards per carry.
4. Harrison Smith embodies Bob Diaco’s defense.
For Irish fans that kept Harrison Smith in their doghouse for much of the last two seasons, it had to border on the bizarre to see the senior safety turn into a ballhawk right before our very eyes this afternoon.
Smith led the team with six solo tackles and intercepted Miami quarterbacks three times in the first half, leading the charge for Bob Diaco’s defense as it finished the season with another dominating performance.
Smith’s development both on the field and as a leader (he leads all Irish defenders, being chosen game captain four times) embodies the development of Diaco’s entire defense, turning a misplaced misfit into a elite defensive player.
While we joked about it earlier in the week, Diaco’s fable about the scorpion and the frog is a telling parable for a defense that has been in need of a identity for the last five years. This unit has bought in completely to the ideals and philosophy Diaco constantly preaches, understanding that they truly are 1/11th of a unit, and must simply “master their musts.”
With Smith coming back for a fifth year, the Irish will have an anchor for their secondary. It may have taken a long time to get there, but Smith’s intellect on the field has finally matched the athleticism he’s flashed in his first three seasons in South Bend.
5. Don’t look now, but the 2011 season could be a special one for the Irish.
Notre Dame fans will have the next nine months to get overly excited about 2011, but the pieces are in place for the Irish to be BCS contenders next season. If Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph decide to return, the Irish will have their leading quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end back on offense, with four of five lineman returning to protect them. They’ll return both defensive ends, three of four starting linebackers, and three of four starting defensive backs as well. That’s a lot of continuity as the Irish head into year two of the Kelly era.
Kelly made comments during Sun Bowl interviews that he’s confident that he can manufacture the offense needed to win football games, and he’s shown that he’s been able to do that since Rees took control of the team. With his sights set squarely on defensive talent, the Irish finally have a coach that not only understands that the Irish need an elite defense to win BCS games, but is willing to put an emphasis on it during recruiting.
There will never be a coach at Notre Dame that admits publicly he’s in the midst of a rebuilding year, but the 2010 season was exactly that for Notre Dame. Replacing three of five starters on the offensive line, an All-American caliber quarterback and the Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver all but gutted an offense that also had to learn a completely new philosophy and scheme (with a first-time starting quarterback recovering from major knee surgery). The challenges were just as significant on the defensive side of the ball, where a beleaguered unit needed to relearn just about everything it had been taught in order to get back to playing just mediocre defense.
Kelly certainly didn’t pass every test he faced this season, and a few decisions he made cost the Irish dearly. But he’s instilled a confidence and optimism in both the team and the fanbase that’s been absent for a long time.
“I was confident that when I took the job here at the University of Notre Dame, I would bring the program back,” Kelly said last week. “Now I know we will. Stay tuned. It’ll be a fun ride.”
After the program hit a low not seen even during these last 15 seasons, the Irish picked themselves up from the ground, dusted themselves off, and won the final four games of the season, dispatching programs like Utah, USC, and Miami along the way. That was something just about all of us didn’t see coming.
246 days until the Irish take on South Florida in Notre Dame Stadium. All of ND Nation awaits…