If you're a Notre Dame football fan, the 2011 season is shaping up to be pretty special.
The Irish dominated both sides of the ball in Friday’s 33-17 victory over Miami in El Paso, Texas, as a four-game win streak to end 2010 took away the sting of a slow start and gave them momentum heading into next year.
The electric Fighting Irish jolted the Hurricanes (7-6) early with two quick touchdown strikes from freshman quarterback Tommy Rees to star receiver Michael Floyd, who nearly added two more, practically claiming a victory before everyone had reached their seats.
On an uncharacteristically cold day in West Texas, here's a look at a number of Notre Dame players who scorched an old rival to finish 8-5:
In what was probably his final game in an Irish uniform, Floyd, a junior, caught six passes for 106 yards and two scores against the nation's second-ranked pass defense. Few expected Floyd, assumed to be greeted by blanket coverage all afternoon, to be much of a factor. Instead, the 6-3, 227-pounder from St. Paul, Minn., victimized Miami and defensive back Brandon Harris.
Floyd showed his speed on third-and-long with a short slant that he took 35 yards -- on a drive he finished with a 2-yard TD snag -- and underscored his ability to get the ball on an under-thrown pass for a 34-yard score.
Irish senior safety Harrison Smith turned Miami quarterback Jacory Harris' brain to mush with three first-half interceptions, breaking former ND great Elmer Layden's 85-year record of two picks in the 1925 Rose Bowl against Stanford. Harris was soon replaced by freshman Stephen Morris, who finished 22-for-33 passing for 283 yards and a pair of TDs.
Smith has a fifth year of eligibility and it's all but a formality that he will be back in South Bend next year, pending an official offer from the university. Smith had four interceptions in the regular season to finish with seven. He hadn't registered one prior to his senior campaign.
Production, but not perfection
Senior walk-on kicker David Ruffer entered the Sun Bowl 16-for-16 on field goals this year and 22-for-22 in his brief career with the Irish. He connected on FGs from 40 and 50 yards (tying a career long) in the first quarter and added a 19-yarder in the third to give ND a 30-3 lead. Following the ensuing kickoff, Ruffer limped off the field.
When he came back out for a 36-yard attempt with 4:16 left in the third, his streak ended. Though his resume was finally smudged, his nine points were critical when the Hurricanes came to life later in the game. Sophomore Nick Tausch, a Texas product, relieved Ruffer and converted a 34-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
Long haul for Hughes
Through his first three seasons, Robert Hughes never averaged more than 38 yards rushing per game. His 5-11, 245-pound frame was used mostly at fullback after opportunities as the featured back failed. When Armando Allen went down with a hip injury earlier this year, Hughes provided ND with energy, toughness and straightforward reliability in combination with sophomore Cierre Wood, who bolted to a 34-yard TD early in the third quarter.
Hughes, who only carried the ball in eight games this year, bruised the Hurricanes for 84 yards on 27 carries to cap a superb senior season and push his total to 303. Wood had 85 yards on 11 carries.
The crystal ball was already murky concerning Notre Dame's starting QB in 2011, and Rees' efficient and intelligent play against the 'Canes just made Kelly's decision that much tougher.
Never rattled, Rees completed 16 of 30 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns with absolutely no mistakes against a heralded secondary. With ample protection from the Irish offensive line, Rees was patient in the pocket, made strong throws on the run and did far more than just manage the game. Of his four victories, Friday's was the loudest argument that he's ready to be the man and permanently replace injured junior Dayne Crist.