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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Miami

Dec 31, 2010, 6:20 PM EDT

Michael Floyd AP

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…



  1. c4evr - Dec 31, 2010 at 6:50 PM

    Great win by a team that was left for dead. I was one of Kelly’s biggest critics this year and he still hasn’t completely sold me on the spread being a good fit at ND. On defense, solid play until the 4th quarter. But we didn’t get much pressure on the QB all afternoon. And I don’t know if it was the big lead, Teo being out of the game, or UM finding it’s rhythm, but there were a lot of yards piling up in the 4th quarter. Take away Jacory’s horrendous start and you have a tight ball game the rest of the way.

    Here’s the 5 things I learned from this game.

    1. Rees showed, once again, he has composure beyond his years and will win the starting job for 2011

    2. The defense is not the same when Teo is out… and not in a good way.

    3. Controlling the offense line of scrimmage must be priority 1 this Spring

    4. Michael Floyd will return next year with all the uncertainty in the NFL (alright, that’s actually a wish)

    5. David Ruffer deserves a scholarship for next year – that shot would have been goof from 60+

  2. papadec - Dec 31, 2010 at 7:11 PM

    I wasn’t very happy about the 4th quarter, but a win – is a win – is a win. I’m glad to see BK finally got the message about putting points on the board (field goals) when he has the chance. It will be interesting to see which recruits jump on board, now. Two 7-5 teams could be undefeated when they meet in 2012. That would be very interesting. Happy New Year to all – and thank you Keith.

  3. fightinmad35 - Dec 31, 2010 at 9:19 PM

    Good game. Floyd looked dominant against a highly regarded NFL prospect at cornerback (Harris). I think his stock just went up. I hope he comes back but I honestly don’t expect him to. BK kept his team together and they make great improvements as the year went on. He showed his quality be season’s end. This will be the longest 9 months of my life. Looking forward to next year already. Go Irish!

  4. borromini - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:36 PM

    You give a crap rubber head…that’s why you bothered loggin in and commenting.

  5. joewyoming - Jan 1, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    Hip hip hooray for the Irish! Even when they were losing, this team had a “just wait and see” vibe to it. Can’t wait to see the future. Go Irish!

  6. Keith Arnold - Jan 1, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    Okay, gents. Cleaning a few of these up. Let’s make a New Years resolution of not commenting like an idiot.

  7. jerseyshorendfan1 - Jan 2, 2011 at 2:12 AM

    5 Things Learned:

    1) Boy, it sure feels good to win a Bowl game in such a dominant fashion, especially against Miami. I know some of our players weren’t even born when this rivalry was at its zenith, but they should still be proud of beating these convicts so convincingly.

    2) The ND brand hasn’t lost any of its luster. This was the fastest sellout in Sun Bowl history. ND has superb academics, football tradition and an appeal to Catholics and those of Irish heritage the world over. Let’s face it, no other university really has that type of following on such a national scale. NDNation can become a home crowd just about anywhere.

    3) Brian Kelly coached an outstanding game. He had a nice mix of the run and pass and made all the right decisions re: FG’s, clock mgmt, etc. Even won the time of possession battle. My hat is off to him and I am now looking forward to his long term presence at ND (even though I wasn’t so keen on his hiring at the time). Furthermore, he weathered a really tumultuous season, on and off of the field (Matt James, Declan Sullivan tragedy, Seeburg suicide and allegations, etc) and frankly, I’m surprised he hasn’t gone totally gray by now.

    4) Several players deserve to be singled out for their bowl performances: Harrison Smith had a game about as wild as a west Texas wind; Rees’ stats were stellar when you consider what the UM secondary had done all year; Hughes continued to plow through defenders, Riddick is just plain exciting whenever the ball touches his hands and what else can you say about Mike Floyd (except please don’t go); and,

    5) Keith Arnold put in a stellar season with his insightful articles and entertaining live blog. Keith, I hope the suits at NBC Sports don’t find out how much we like this site and the live game day blog because they’ll either do something to screw it up or start charging us.

    Anxiously awaiting NLOID and the 2011 season, I remain,

    Your Pal,
    Art Vandelay

  8. irishfan2791 - Jan 2, 2011 at 7:36 PM

    I Love this, when Notre Dame is winning everything is that much sweeter, I seriously believe this team still has a ton of room to grow, Brian Kelly has made the comment many times that they aren’t where they want to be and that there is still more to put in. I look at the recruiting class and I like what I see, DEFENSE. Even if Floyd and Rudolph dont come back we’ll still have a plethora of playmakers with Riddick, Jones, Effiert, Wood, and Daniels, Adkinson(two freshman, look’em up on youtube) for either Rees or Crist(personally I want Crist) the offense should be awesome. the Irish are on their way back we need to win some more games were not totally expected to MSU, Stanford. GO IRISH!!!!!!!

  9. kidmarc - Jan 3, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    1. If this is it for Michael Floyd, he certainly left us with something to talk about.

    If Floyd leaves early, it will speak more to the program than to Floyd; it isn’t that he is ready for the Pro’s — more about whether being at ND under current conditions is worth it or not.
    The same goes for Rudolph. You either sticking it out, or you are saying the program isn’t worth it, currently.

    2. Regardless of what the future holds for Tommy Rees, he saved Notre Dame’s season.

    Rees did very well with his tailored game plans. He is very much like the coach, a gambler. However, if he becomes the next QB by or durinig next season, Hendrix should look to transfer to that place he visited before commitment to ND. The gates of heaven have opened up and a voice has spoken to Hendrix, “Go south, young man!… Further south!”

    3. Even without a 100-yard rusher, Hughes and Wood provided the ground game needed to win.

    Sadly, by the time Hughes has found himself, it’s too little too late.

    5. Don’t look now, but the 2011 season could be a special one for the Irish.

    Yes I’m afraid given the performances of the this season by the other teams and the ND schedule of 2011, ND will have a good chance of being BCS contenders. Okay Okay… don’t all hiss and booo just because ND will get their shot next year; it’s not the end of the world… that won’t happen until the following year. In the meantime, go home and write, “I will not hiss and booo Notre Dame just because they have a chance next season.”, a hundred zillion times… and maybe… just maybe… there will be BCS championship game in your stocking next season.


  10. radschneider - Jan 3, 2011 at 6:55 PM

    I agree with all the positives but what is bothering me is Notre Dame’s inability to punch in touchdowns when deep in the red zone. The Sun Bowl was no exception. Had the ball within the 2-yard line and they failed to score a touchdown. That has been a problem for the past few years and still has not improved much. If they want to beat the elite teams they can not do it by kicking field goals. Could have had close to 50 points on Miami had they executed better in the red zone.

    I don’t know about other people, but as Miami started scoring I actually got nervous. I thought “here we go again….”.

    ND still lacks that killer instinct. ND should have beaten Miami as badly as Miss. St. beat Michigan.

  11. dochrd - Jan 4, 2011 at 12:58 AM

    This was a very emotional season for a lot of reasons, but one sure thing was the quality of this blog and site. Keith did great reporting, the comments section added value (as oppoosed to past years), and the video highlights were well-edited. All of this for free! I’m with Art V.: please, NBC, keep it free and support the site! Looking forward to this Fall, but first stop: Keith’s recruiting and Spring game reporting.

  12. darind61 - Jan 5, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    I am a loyal Canes fan, and I do resepct good football! ND you guys simply kicked our butts in the bowl game. You were faster, stronger, and better prepared.

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