NCF Nation: 2010 Sun Bowl

Instant analysis: Hyundai Sun Bowl

December, 31, 2010
Instant analysis of the Hyundai Sun Bowl, which Notre Dame won 33-17 over Miami:

How the game was won: Motivation and focus are so important in bowl games. The Irish came in pumped up after a three-game winning streak to end the season, while the Hurricanes limped in under an interim coach. (And everyone from the south Florida contingent looked absolutely miserable in the 35-degree conditions in El Paso). It was easy to see which team wanted to be there from almost the opening kickoff, as Notre Dame was the aggressor and came up with every bang-bang play. Miami threw four interceptions in the first half, fell behind 27-0 and never really threatened despite a couple of fourth-quarter scores.

Player of the game: Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith had three interceptions in the second quarter. Miami is exceptionally generous when it comes to giving away picks, especially Jacory Harris, but three interceptions is still impressive.

Player of the game II: Irish quarterback Tommy Rees (16-of-30, 195 yards, two touchdowns) didn't have spectacular numbers, but he spread the ball around, hung tough in the pocket and made wise decisions. The kid just wins; the freshman improved to 4-0 as a starter.

Stat of the game: In the first three quarters, Miami ran six offensive plays in Notre Dame territory. Two of those plays ended in interceptions.

Record performance: Notre Dame kicker David Ruffer hit his first three field goals to increase his school record to 23 straight made attempts. But Ruffer finally had his first career miss in the second half. Ruffer looked as if he tweaked a leg on the kickoff preceding that field goal attempt. Nick Tausch kicked the Irish's final field goal with 1:21 left.

What it means: What an unbelievable turnaround Notre Dame pulled off from the end of October until the last day in December. In disarray after back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa, the Irish reeled off four straight impressive victories, including the Sun Bowl win. Their defense improbably turned into a stonewalling force down the stretch. An eight-win season isn't usually cause for celebration in South Bend, but all things considered this must go down as a successful first year under Brian Kelly. Rees continues to shine, and you'd have to think he now has a good chance of keeping the job even when Dayne Crist comes back from injury.

Given the late-season surge, the Irish figure to be ranked going into the 2011 season and probably overrated in the preseason as they usually are after any taste of prosperity. But a lot of key players return, and Kelly's system will have gained roots. One drawback: star linebacker Manti Te'o injured a leg in the second half. Irish fans will hold their breath until they find out the seriousness of that problem.

Hyundai Sun Bowl: 3 keys Notre Dame

December, 30, 2010
Here are three keys for Notre Dame in Friday's Hyundai Sun Bowl game against Miami:

1. Protect Tommy Rees: Notre Dame simply must give Tommy Rees time against Allen Bailey and the talented Miami defensive front. The Hurricanes are good enough to get pressure with just their front four, but the Irish offensive line has to hold them off. This is also a big spot for running backs Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes, not just to stay in and block but to run the ball effectively enough to slow down the pass rush. Hughes' big frame was effective against USC's athletic defense and he could be a big key in this one as well.

2. Don't let Jacory Harris feel comfortable: Harris, the Miami quarterback, is an interception machine. But when he has time to sit in the pocket, he can be pretty effective. The Irish defense was outstanding down the stretch in the regular season but could have trouble getting to the quarterback around guys like mammoth tackle Seantrel Henderson. They don't need to bring the mobile Harris down, but they've got to at least get him on the move so he can help out with his erratic throws. The return of nose guard Ian Williams could provide a big boost in that regard.

3. Start fast: Miami is coming into this bowl having lost its final two regular-season games in disappointing fashion and its head coach. So if the Irish can get the jump on the Hurricanes, you'd have to question their desire to really fight back into it. Part of starting fast means not letting Miami's outstanding return game create an early score or highly-favorable field position, or allowing the 'Canes defense to get on the board with a turnover. Notre Dame played its best football in November, but its margin for error against a team this talented remains razor thin.
Here’s a quick preview of Miami’s game against Notre Dame in the Hyundai Sun Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. While he hasn’t been ruled out, it’s hard to believe quarterback Stephen Morris, who was on crutches this week after injuring his left ankle in practice, will see any significant playing time. Harris has had a roller coaster of a season, but he’ll need to be at his best against a Notre Dame defense that is allowing just 20.5 points per game. Harris has thrown 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this year, and also missed time with a concussion.

WHAT TO WATCH: Miami’s defensive line against Notre Dame’s offensive line. The Canes will be looking to pressure true freshman quarterback Tommy Rees into some mistakes, and Miami’s front four has done a good job this year of getting to quarterbacks. Rees will have to get rid of the ball quickly, as Miami’s defensive ends bring speed off the edge.

WHY TO WATCH: Regardless of the current state of both programs, the history between them is enough alone to make this game interesting. There are plenty of interesting subplots, though, as Miami is under the direction of interim head coach Jeff Stoutland, who took over when Randy Shannon was fired, and coach Al Golden, who was recently hired, will be watching. It will be interesting to see how focused Miami is considering the coaching transition it has gone through.

PREDICTION: Miami 31, Notre Dame 28. The biggest question for Miami is not talent in this game, it’s focus. The Canes have the speed and athleticism to win the game, but will they have the emotion they've lacked so many other times this season?
Is there a more anticipated matchup between 7-5 teams this bowl season then Notre Dame vs. Miami? These two programs have the name, but do they still have the game? We'll find out Friday in El Paso, Texas.

WHO TO WATCH: The Notre Dame offensive line. The Irish front played pretty well down the stretch, including against a talent-laden USC defense. They'll be facing another batch of future pros in the Hurricanes, who are led by fearsome defensive end Allen Bailey. Left tackle Zack Martin has been the team's most consistent blocker, while right tackle Taylor Dever has shown great improvement. They will be challenged on the edges to create time for freshman quarterback Tommy Rees. The last thing Notre Dame wants is for Rees to be hurried and force throws that the athletic Hurricanes can go after.

WHAT TO WATCH: The secondaries for each team. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris throws to opposing defensive backs almost as much as he does his own receivers, so Gary Gray and Darrin Walls could get their hands on some balls in this game. On the flip side, star Irish receiver Michael Floyd could be playing his last game in college, and if so, this will be a great audition for NFL scouts against standout Hurricanes cornerback Brandon Harris. If Rees has time, he'll likely look to Floyd as much as possible.

WHY TO WATCH: Nostalgia, if nothing else. Neither of these teams are vintage editions of themselves, but the uniforms still conjure up memories of Catholics vs. Convicts. Notre Dame can write a terrific ending to Brian Kelly's first season after winning their final three regular-season games. Bowl-game victories are overrated as boosts into the following season, but the Irish can use all the positive momentum they can find.

PREDICTION: It's debatable whether or not regular-season finishes carry over into the postseason, but Notre Dame certainly has a lot better vibes than Miami. The Hurricanes faltered down the stretch, fired Randy Shannon and went to El Paso with an interim coach and questions at quarterback. They probably have more top-shelf talent than Notre Dame, but that hasn't helped Miami much in the recent past. The Irish are more stable at this point, and that's enough for a close 24-21 win.
Notre Dame offensive lineman Chris Stewart will have to battle against future NFL draft picks in the trenches during the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Miami's front four on defense are a load to handle.

Stewart, though, can't wait for the challenge. By the time he gets to El Paso, Texas, the 350-pounder will feel like there's a lot less riding on his shoulders.

He has two papers left to write to finish an unprecedented double-duty. Stewart is completing his second semester of law school at Notre Dame, something the Irish say has never been attempted by a player at this level.

There's a reason no one does it. Stewart, as you might imagine, didn't get much sleep this semester trying to be both barrister and blocker.

"It's exhausting," he said. "But I think it was good to get a jump on my education."

Stewart's classes included criminal law, contracts, legal writing and research and a special studies course on sports law. Having begun this path in the spring, he got an understanding of the demands. That was a prelude to the fall and the increased time constraints posed by practice, games and other football responsibilities.

"You just do the best you can and when you have some down time, try to get ahead a little bit," he said. "When you can't, you just go along with it and do the best you can and don't fret it. My professors were understanding, knowing no one had ever tried to do it before. I still had to complete my work the same way, but they respected that there were just some things I would not be able to do."

Stewart used some of the time on early-season road trips to work on his schoolwork, but he tried not to let that distract him from football. Instead, it was the other way around. He called practices and games "my escape from the real world."

Law school didn't often get in the way of his football chores, except when it came time to take the four-hour exams. His most difficult assignment? Remembering all the terms and rules of contract law for that marathon final.

Would Stewart recommend that other follow his example?

"It's pretty difficult," he said. "People have to know what the work entails and what it leads to. You don't have time for a personal life and don't have time to really be a student. You're a really a professional at that point, the way I see it."

Once Stewart finishes his two 20-plus page papers -- one on criminal law and another on the NFL's collective-bargaining agreement -- he'll put law school on hold to pursue a possible pro career. He hopes it will be years until he's finished in the NFL, but when that's over he'd like to do something in either international criminal or business law.

And when he turns those papers in, he'll be ready to head to his home state (he's a Houston native) and turn all his attention to football. No matter how tough those Hurricanes may be.

"That," he said, "will be really nice. "