- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.