Sun Bowl 2010 Breakdown: Can Notre Dame Win Four Straight?

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Sun Bowl 2010 Breakdown: Can Notre Dame Win Four Straight?
1-0 Notre Dame in the world of mascots.

After a 33-day layoff, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame are back on the field this Friday afternoon to take on the Miami Hurricanes in the 2010 Sun Bowl.

Both teams head into this matchup with identical 7-5 records and are looking to gather momentum for 2011 and give their offseason recruiting a boost as we inch towards national signing day.

For two teams with a combined 14-10 record, there is still a lot to like about this game.

First of all, there is the name-brand power of both Notre Dame and Miami. The Hurricane fans aren’t die-hard like some of the other big name programs, but people love to watch them and it’s no secret that this should be one of the highest viewed bowl games of the postseason.

Secondly, both teams are bringing some individual star power (e.g. Miami’s Jacory Harris and Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd), while each program is at a rather intriguing crossroads in their respective rebuilding process.

Put it all together and it should be a fun game to watch.

 

Tommy Can You Hear Me?

I am still erring on the side of caution with quarterback Tommy Rees, although I am excited that the coaching staff has had an entire month to sit him and down and prepare him for one specific opponent.

On the surface, it appears that Miami has a distinct advantage (some would say a rather large advantage) with their passing defense matching up against a true freshman quarterback. You’re not going to get an argument out of me that the Hurricanes are more likely to dominate this aspect of the game instead of the exact opposite occurring.

Miami has the second-ranked passing defense in the nation with a whole stable full of athletic sack-machine linemen, and has only allowed one team (Ohio State: 233) to throw for at least 200 yards in 2010.

The Hurricanes also held six teams to fewer than 150 yards passing and only gave up seven touchdowns through the air during the entire regular season.

In other words, Tommy Rees has his work cut out.

That’s not to say that the Irish won’t have some advantages in the passing game (the healthy return of Theo Riddick…HELLO!), but if I had to bet, I would think that this is going to be a rocky game for Rees.

I’ve said before, Notre Dame is lucky to be working out of the spread, otherwise this offense would have taken a huge nosedive towards the end of the season (some would argue even more than it did). Keeping Rees in shotgun and utilizing quick throws with quick reads is going to be so crucial to taking home a victory in the Sun Bowl.

What a sick graphic.

Just the thought of Rees standing under center, taking the snap and back peddling while the Miami defensive linemen tee-off, makes me sick to my stomach. Freshman quarterbacks in pro-style offenses equals bad, while in the spread system, less so.

Rees’ lack of mobility is a long-term concern and from that standpoint he isn’t a great fit for the spread, but the youngster makes up for it with a quick release, good accuracy and for the most part smart decision making.

I’m always a little cautious of predicting overall running game success when there’s an immobile quarterback with the ball in his hands, but I think the Irish will smartly move Rees around in the pocket to avoid Miami’s aggressive pass rush and continue utilizing more down hill power running sets to move the chains.

The question now becomes, how much damage can an (apparently) physically limited and surely inexperienced Tommy Rees do against this Miami defense?

 

Will Notre Dame Really Pound the Ball on the Ground?

This is an important question and will probably determine whether Rees plays well or not. Will the young signal-caller manage the game or have to throw the ball all over the field to pick up a win?

After Notre Dame’s emotional victory over USC to close out the regular season, a win in which the Irish put together a power-running game to seal the game-winning touchdown, fans have been clamoring for more of the same bruising ground attack in this game against Miami.

Adding to this talk is Miami’s rather pedestrian 81st-ranked rushing defense, the obvious weakness and Achilles heal of their entire defense.

Nevertheless, I am not so sure that Notre Dame will run the ball a ton or even have much success doing so.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for Cierre Wood to have a big day and for Robert Hughes to carry the ball a dozen times and smash through the Hurricane defense, but I’m just not sold that Notre Dame is good enough or prepared to do so.

Certainly there were some positive trends with the running game to close out the season, but it’s not like the team suddenly transformed into this juggernaut on the ground and that Wood and Hughes were machines that simply could not be stopped.

That final drive against USC was a thing of beauty, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that up until that point, the running game was more or less ineffective all night long against the Trojans and still quite poor (97th nationally) all season long.

We don’t know what Brian Kelly is gameplanning, but I wouldn’t put it past him to utilize Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert a lot more in comparison to pounding the rock with the running backs.

 

So It Sounds Like You’re Not Very Optimistic with the Offense

Yeah, pretty much.

We can dance around the subject all we want, but even during this three-game winning streak to end the regular season, the offense has left a lot to be desired.

The Irish were stuck in neutral against Utah before a blocked punt was returned for a score by Robert Blanton. A couple of series later and Rees found Duval Kamara on two seperate touchdown passes and the rest of the game was an exercise in running the clock out.

Against Army the offense played decent, but 369 total yards and 20 points is nothing to really write home about against a meager Black Knight defense.

And the final drive notwithstanding, the offensive performance against USC was probably one of the two or three worst of the season.

Notre Dame’s strength (passing the ball) plays right into the hands of Miami’s greatest asset on defense (getting after the quarterback and giving up little yardage through the air). It’s nice to have some playmakers out there in Floyd, Riddick, Eifert, Jones, etc. but I just don’t know how Rees will react to such a fierce pass defense.

And like I said, no matter how much we want it to be true or want to believe it, this Irish team’s strength on offense is not running the ball. Since Miami has struggled at times defending the run maybe we will see a productive day out of Wood, Hughes and Gray, but I’m not going into this game thinking Notre Dame is going to run all over the ‘Canes.

Please don't be your last game at Notre Dame!

Lost in all the numbers is the reality that Miami has played teams that are generally run-first oriented and very good at doing so.

For example, Ohio State, Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech all ran the ball well against Miami. These teams combined for 1,041 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground versus only 813 yards and four touchdowns through the air.

Sure, this may reinforce the point that Miami doesn’t have a great rush defense, but it also shows that those teams are good at running the ball and are willing to stick to a game plan of handing it off play after play.

To get those numbers above, each team averaged 41.4 carries per game versus just 23.6 pass attempts. I wouldn’t expect Notre Dame to have that kind of run-pass ratio in the upcoming Sun Bowl.

What’s more, the least successful running game out of that group (North Carolina: 95th nationally) ended up with 149 yards on 29 carries, a pretty decent day and most likely Notre Dame’s ceiling against Miami.

At the end of the day, I don’t think the Irish gain more than 350 total yards in this game. Some may think that’s a pretty low estimate, but think about this way: 150 yards on the ground would be one of the best performances of the year for the team, and 200 yards passing would be the second most giving up Miami all season.

Miami only gave up more than 350 total yards five times this season (1-4 in those games) and in many respects, 350 yards might be a generous estimate.

Remember, Notre Dame shares one common opponent with Miami, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Hurricanes took the Panthers behind the wood shed limiting them to just 232 total yards in a 31-3 blowout. A few weeks later, the Irish surrendered 150 more yards in a narrow six point victory over Pittsburgh.

Take it with a pinch of salt, but don’t ignore those outcomes all together.

 

Coaching Matters

With all that being said about the offense, I am excited, intrigued and curious to see what the Notre Dame coaching staff has in store for Miami.

Not only in the sense of what kind of offensive wrinkles they’ll be throwing at them or how creative they will get with the running game, but also with how prepared the team comes out, and how much energy and physicality they play with.

I don’t think there’s any question that Notre Dame has a huge coaching advantage in this game, specifically since the team played so well down the stretch and seems to have bought into what Brian Kelly is teaching and began trusting what the coaches are saying.

Will this coaching edge make a big difference?

It’s hard to say really, but it could make all the difference in the world if it is a close, hard-fought game and Notre Dame players are looking into the eyes of Brian Kelly, and the Miami players are looking at their interim coach and thinking about Al Golden at the same time.

Moreover, I like that Brian Kelly and Co. have had such a long time to prepare for the Hurricanes. History shows us that if Kelly is the great coach that so many think he is, then the team will be extremely prepared and ready to win this football game on Friday.

It’s difficult to know whether Miami is going to be ready for this game or if they’ll be distracted with an interim coach on the sidelines and a new head coach waiting back in Florida.

They didn’t show up against their main rival Florida State and got blasted, they didn’t play well against the other two ranked teams they faced and they wilted against South Florida at home to end the season.

Will the ‘Canes be able to overcome those losses, the firing of their coach, the general disappointment of their season and play with a high level of intensity because Notre Dame used to be a rival 20 years ago?

If we’re to honestly look at a lot of the matchups on the field, Miami has an advantage in many areas (they were preseason AP No. 13 for a reason), but the Hurricanes also lacked focus at times and were very mistake prone this season.

There’s certainly a lot of raw talent on both teams, Miami with perhaps a little more, but I don’t believe an interim coach will fix a lot of the Hurricanes problems and overcome their adversity for one bowl game. This is all the more true when a staff is going up against Brian Kelly and an improved Notre Dame team hungry for battle.

 

The Irish Defense Played Pretty Well Down the Stretch

They sure did.

I don’t think I would have believed myself writing this in the beginning of the year, but I am a lot more confident in the defense than the offense heading into this game against Miami.

The Hurricane offense relies heavily on the ground game and Miami has four quality backs in seniors Damien Berry and Greg Cooper, as well as sophomore Mike James and budding star freshman Lamar Miller.

That’s a potent group no doubt, but here’s why I’m less concerned than most:

The Irish defense has made incredible strides defending the run and especially clogging up the middle of the field and keeping opponents from ripping off those backbreaking five to 12-yard runs.

Also, as talented as the Miami backfield is, the reality is that only one guy can carry the ball at a time. If there were four wide receivers and a tight end as talented as the running backs then it’s a completely different story.

Of course this means Miami will always have a fresh set of legs ready to pound the ball, but usually team’s will resort to one or two runners in a game anyway. We’ve seen over the years with USC that a backfield with four or five guys clamoring for carries usually isn’t anywhere near as effective as having two guys like Reggie Bush and LenDale White do it all themselves.

Put another way, one All-American caliber running back is typically more dangerous than three very good ones. We’ll find out if Miami has good or great talent in their backfield, but Notre Dame has been very stingy against the run of late nonetheless.

 

What’s the Story with Jacory?

With a Tuesday afternoon practice injury to freshman Stephen Morris, it appears junior quarterback Jacory Harris will be starting for the ‘Canes this Friday.

I don’t want to put too much pressure on him (or do I?), but Harris is an important key to Miami’s success in this game.

The Hurricanes have a dangerous running game, but if Harris isn’t playing at a high level, or at least playing decent, the Miami offense is infinitely less powerful.

There’s always the possibility that Miami could run wild on the ground and Harris’ play won’t matter all that much, but given Notre Dame’s strength up front I highly doubt that will happen.

Can Jacory Harris protect the football?

Miami could run up 190 yards on the ground, but that might not be enough if they are getting sketchy play out of their quarterback.

Three things going against the Hurricanes in the game are that Notre Dame plays zone coverage, Miami likes to live off the long ball and the Irish have limited it fairly well all year, and Harris is extremely turnover happy and inaccurate.

Two things that Miami has going for them is that the Irish safeties will likely creep up towards the line of scrimmage in run support (leaving themselves susceptible to deep completions) and Notre Dame has had trouble getting pressure on quarterbacks all year long.

It will be interesting to see how these dynamics play out over the course of the game.

If Harris has time to throw he should be effective, but the Irish zone coverage can wreak havoc on a quarterback who struggles with accuracy and makes risky throws.

The more success Miami has running the ball, the more likely Harris will complete the long ball, but Notre Dame has been able to contain opponents running games late in the season just with its front seven.

Whereas I’m a little tepid waiting for Notre Dame’s offense and a skinny freshman to face Miami’s defense, I am relishing the opportunity to watch the Irish defense face this Hurricane offense.

And I have to say, that makes me feel better than in the past where Notre Dame knew its offense (at least its passing game) would show up but the defense would be a giant ball of suck.

 

Who’s Going To Win That New Sun Bowl Trophy?

This is a very even game pretty much across the board.

Miami would seem to have the better overall defense, stronger running game and an edge on both the offensive and defensive lines. Anytime, you can come into a game with those advantages it can be huge.

Still, Notre Dame doesn’t lag far behind in any of Miami’s perceived strengths and the Irish will have some advantages of their own as well.

On paper, I think Miami is a little bit better of a team if only because they have proven that they can shut down opponents passing games in combination with a very strong running game. After all, Miami limped to the finish line, while Notre Dame charged there, and yet the Hurricanes are still favored.

This game will probably come down to all of those great tag lines that so many people like to throw about when talking about football with 18 to 22 year olds.

“Who wants it more?”

2010 Sun Bowl-winning coach?

“Who will play with more passion?”

If we take a look at the intangibles for each squad, Notre Dame comes away with significant advantages including finishing the season playing its best defense in years, coming in with a winning streak (and all the confidence that exudes), plus what appears to be a rather large coaching edge.

I just don’t know how focused and mentally sharp this Miami team is going to be. Both teams are coming in with the same record and both have a ton of talent, but this Hurricane team was held in high regard coming into this season, was a favorite to win the ACC, but continued to play unmotivated football this season and let their coach get fired.

Sure there’s a possibility that Miami comes out all fired up and buys into the decent amount of hype building for this game, but it will be tough for them.

Last season, Notre Dame fired its head coach and declined to attend a bowl game after a 6-6 season. The situations aren’t completely identical, but there are enough similarities to make the comparison.

Does anyone think Notre Dame could have just flipped a switch and played a well-rounded and passionate 60-minute bowl game after a disappointing November and with an interim head coach leading them onto the field?

I foresee a very tight game that is controlled by Miami for three quarters, but with the Irish slowly wearing down the Hurricanes and making a handful of game-changing fourth quarter plays.

The game will end with the scholarship-less walk-on kicker David Ruffer, who has never missed a field goal, nailing an attempt with less than two minutes to play for the lead, and ultimately, the victory.

Notre Dame 23, Miami 20

From the FanTake blog: One Foot Down

Follow on Twitter: @OneFootDown

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