After such a tumultuous season up until October, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame put together one of the most impressive finishes in recent history with a 33-17 victory in the Sun Bowl over the Miami Hurricanes.
Not too long ago this team was 4-5, and lifeless heading into the dreaded month of November where so many recent Irish teams collapsed.
Then the team beat Utah, Army and USC while picking up this bowl bid against old-time rival Miami.
Notre Dame now goes into the offseason with a respectable 8-5 record and you can bet there will be plenty of enthusiasm for this club going into 2011.
Hold on tight, because it’s going to be a long offseason.
Now, let’s go outside the Irish huddle and take a closer look at this Sun Bowl.
Miami: What Happened?
Before we get in-depth into Notre Dame’s play, we need to take a look at Miami and their performance.
Simply put, Miami should be embarrassed at their performance in this game. I talked about this in the preview to the Sun Bowl, as did many others, but with everything that went down over the past month with the Hurricanes firing head coach Randy Shannon the possibility existed that Miami wouldn’t put in the greatest effort in this game.
This isn’t meant to take shots at Miami and I’m sure many Hurricane fans would be quick to agree, but a big story from this game is that Miami simply didn’t show up.
It’s not really that Miami didn’t play well, had some bad breaks and turned the ball over far too many times (although that is a part of it), rather it is how they came out with no passion and looked like they wanted nothing to do with tackling and playing tough football in somewhat cold weather.
It’s one thing to get beat on a play or to make the wrong read, but it’s another thing to show up to a game bundled up like you’re making an expedition to Mount Everest instead of playing football in high 30s temperatures.
So, it turned out that Miami didn’t show up and while Notre Dame certainly deserves a lot of credit for showing up and punching the Hurricanes in the mouth, any proper recap of this game needs to be prefaced with the fact that Miami was probably a beaten team before they even stepped onto the field.
Kudos to the Notre Dame Coaching Staff
Now that we’ve got the Miami disclaimer out of the way, a tip of the cap is necessary for the Notre Dame coaching staff.
Part of this is getting the players prepared for the bowl game and playing with fire and intensity, but it’s also for saving the season and clearly showing immense improvement even with a bunch of injuries that would normally cripple a football team.
Once again, the defensive game plan was spot on and the offensive play-calling was smart and took advantage of Miami’s weaknesses.
I could go on and on about this, but it really boils down to one thing: Notre Dame has finally put together a quality coaching staff and it is starting to pay dividends.
Due to this strong finish to end the season, the amount of talent on campus now and the very talented recruiting class about to come to South Bend, next year is certain to be very exciting.
But with this coaching staff I find myself really looking forward to what things will look like in year four, five, six and so on.
Maybe Brian Kelly isn’t the savior we’re hoping, but it’s becoming pretty clear that he is one heck of a football coach and that bright days are ahead for Notre Dame.
Offensive Line: A
Here’s all you need to know: Notre Dame ran for a season-high 196 rushing yards and limited Miami to zero sacks. Yes, Notre Dame ran the ball well and shut out the nation’s eighth-best sack attack.
One of the season’s highlights has been the play of the offensive line, not just because of their consistency, but how they have changed systems in one year and simultaneously taken their game to the next level.
This was a great game and a great season for the offensive line. The future is very bright in the trenches for Notre Dame.
Wide Receivers: B
I was a little hard on Michael Floyd in the beginning of the year as I was one of those voices calling for him to step up and become a better all-around player. Floyd did exactly that and showed against Miami why he is one of the most talented and feared receivers in the nation.
This grade could have been higher but Floyd did almost all the damage himself, dropped two more touchdown passes (one was a tough catch, the other should have been an easy six), and the only other receivers to catch balls were Goodman (one for 30 yards) and TJ Jones (one for 19 yards).
Goodman and Jones’ catches in the second half were pretty big, but this was a very quiet day from the receivers aside from Floyd’s high level of play.
Tight End: B
I believe I saw Mike Ragone out there in some blocking situations which was nice, and redshirt freshman Tyler Eifert continued his ascendancy as a legitimate budding star in college football.
Efiert didn’t have a crazy stat line (four catches for 31 yards), but he made a couple crucial receptions that kept drives alive. We’ve been spoiled in the past with some great tight ends, but sometimes you can’t take that sure-handed and athletic player like Eifert for granted.
Running Backs: A-
The running backs (plus Riddick out of the Wildcat) deserve a high grade for this game for tallying the highest number of yards in 2010, breaking a couple nice long runs, and allowing the offense to keep things simple and control the line of scrimmage.
Even with such a good game I thought there was plenty of criticism for all of the runners, namely all three tip-toed and danced in the backfield a little too often.
Robert Hughes ran pretty hard and deserves a lot of credit for shouldering the load with a career-high 27 carries, but he didn’t bring a ton of power like a back with his size should have. I really would have liked to have seen Hughes run over a Miami defender near the goal line in the second half to seal the blowout, but it didn’t happen.
Cierre Wood was dancing a bit too much in the backfield too, but he showed a lot of burst in his limited playing time, epitomized in his beautiful touchdown run in the first half. Wood finishes with a very nice 603-yard season with a respectable 5.0 yards per carry average.
You have to hand it to Tommy Rees because he is 4-0 as starter, plays so smart and is wise beyond his years.
At this point I’m really at a loss as to how to describe the quarterback situation and how to praise and criticize Rees. I think the best way is to accept that he is doing enough to be a good quarterback and move the ball, and of course the winning always helps.
His deep ball has improved a little bit, and as we’ve already covered many times before that Rees is great at getting the ball out of his hands and making good decisions with the ball.
All things being equal, you can’t complain with 201 passing yards (second-most given up by Miami all season) and a couple touchdowns and no turnovers. Bonus points for his toughness, too.
However, I can’t contain the feeling that there’s just “too much good to be true” going on around Rees either.
For example, Miami freshman quarterback Stephen Morris came in for the benched Jacory Harris and looked pretty impressive showing good mobility and athleticism, a strong arm, while finishing with 282 passing yards.
Sure he’s still raw and Notre Dame let off the gas a little bit in the second half, but he shows at a young age that he could be a very good quarterback.
That doesn’t mean Rees can’t be a great quarterback, but you get the feeling that he’s just a “system” quarterback right now. You can’t really argue with the winning and the moxie from Rees, but there aren’t any “wow” moments from him that the majority of talented freshmen display from time to time.
It’s such an intriguing situation because Rees is going to improve as he gets older, but you have to wonder how much longer the team will continue to get by with no mobility under center, a simplified playbook and virtually zero dynamic ability from the young quarterback.
This isn’t me knocking Rees it’s just he’s never started a game where the offensive line, running game and defense weren’t playing at extremely high levels.
That’s why I think the spring is going to be really competitive.
The winning is great, the decision-making is nice, but it’s hard to jump on Rees’ bandwagon given his physical limitations and when we’ve never seen him play under a ton of pressure from blitzing defenders or have to move the offense with little help from the running game.
Nevertheless, sometimes all of these concerns fade away and certain quarterbacks who don’t dazzle, or are limited in the amount of throws they can make, just keep winning.
Is Rees one of those players?
Defensive Line: A
I figured the Irish would have a tough time getting after Miami’s quarterbacks and picking up sacks, so it came as no surprise that this turned out to be true. Notre Dame was playing against a very talented Hurricane offensive line, but at least did enough to force the Miami quarterbacks out of the pocket and out of their comfort zone.
The defensive line earned a high grade simply because they contained a potent rushing attack averaging 183 yards per game to just 103 yards in the Sun Bowl.
The Irish do need more elite pass rushers off the edge (ahem, Ishaq Williams), but the entire defense has concentrated on being tougher up front and filling in gaps, and we have seen great improvement from this unit especially.
It was a pretty quiet day from the linebackers as Te’o, Brian Smith, Darius Fleming and Kerry Neal totaled just 17 tackles.
The linebackers did pretty well moving up, playing physical and stuffing the run, but they were taken advantage of a little bit in the passing game as well.
Overall, they did their job for the most part but didn’t do anything extraordinary.
Notre Dame gave up only 121 passing yards through three quarters, but threw in some second-stringers and eased off the gas giving up 198 passing yards in the fourth quarter. Maybe there was a prevent defense or whatever, but this big fourth quarter did allow Miami to end up with 25 more total yards in the game.
Still, the secondary played lights out for the majority of the game, including career days from Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton who combined for 16 tackles and four interceptions.
Harrison Smith’s turnaround this year has been wonderful and can’t be talked about enough during the offseason. Suddenly, a player that looked to be a liability before the season has become one of the best players on the entire team.
This was without question a big win for Notre Dame.
Miami did the Irish a lot of favors by showing a lack of toughness, turning the ball over like crazy and not coming ready to play, and as a result, the Hurricanes didn’t do Notre Dame a lot of favors by making this win just a little less meaningful.
But it was still a meaningful win, especially in the context of the whole season and how the team battled back after being in the pits back in October.
Probably the most impressive part of this game was that Notre Dame stood up to the talented front of the Miami defensive and offensive lines and beat them physically. It’s become a calling card for this team as the season wore on that they just kept getting tougher and tougher and more physical than any Notre Dame team we’ve seen in years.
Keep that in mind when you’re hearing the last vestiges of doubters telling you Notre Dame will never succeed in the spread offense or that Brian Kelly doesn’t know enough or doesn’t care or focus on defense.
We’ll be able to sort out more of this game as the days roll on here next week and we’ll have great input from the One Foot Down members who were in attendance very soon too, but in the meantime let me congratulate the Irish on a tremendous finish to the 2010 season.
8-5 won’t wake up any echoes just yet, but the ending to this season should leave a lot of smiles for Irish fans as we head to the offseason.