One of the most intense rivalries from the 1980’s will be making its return to the gridiron as Notre Dame and Miami face off against each other in this years Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
It has been 20 years since these two teams met and both have had their ups and downs since that last meeting in South Bend during the 1990 season. Now, each program is standing at a crossroads of sorts, both with identical records, and gazing out at an exciting yet uncertain future.
It probably will come as no surprise that this is a bigger game for Notre Dame as the Irish will try to pick up their eighth win of the season, close out the 2010 season with a bang, and continue the recent recruiting success in Brian Kelly’s first season.
Miami is in a much different position, coming into this bowl appearance with an interim head coach and plenty of questions surrounding the long-term direction of the program.
Here then, are six reasons Notre Dame will be favored against Miami on New Year’s Eve.
Notre Dame has a clear advantage in momentum, although the long layoff before this game could mitigate some of that edge.
The Irish come into this game having won three straight games, playing like one of the best defenses in the country during the month of November, while showing a lot more toughness, most notably in the running game.
Miami actually played pretty well in the month of November, but ended their season with two straight losses, including a rather embarrassing home defeat by USF.
When that losing streak is added to the firing of head coach Randy Shannon, and the fact that the Hurricanes currently have only six verbal commitments in this 2011 class, it becomes clear there is not a lot of momentum in Coral Gables right now.
2. Crowd Advantage
Predicting what a bowl crowd will look like is often difficult given the circumstances surrounding each game, but this should likely be a lopsided advantage for Notre Dame.
The Irish faithful are among the largest fan bases in the country and have been known to travel all over the country to watch their team play. Very rarely does a Notre Dame team ever play in front of a non-sellout crowd, either at home, on the road, or at a bowl game.
Meanwhile, Miami struggles to fill their own stadium and has been known to have some of the country’s worst fair weather fans. The Hurricanes averaged a crowd of 51,509 this season, leaving almost a third of their stadium empty each and every home game.
Sun Bowl Stadium currently holds a capacity crowd of 51,500 and you can expect a strong majority of the fans will be there to watch Notre Dame play.
We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out, but the Sun Bowl should have a very distinct home game feel for the Fighting Irish.
3. Passing Game
The matchup between junior Jacory Harris (an experienced, veteran leader) versus true freshman Tommy Rees might not seem to be in Notre Dame’s favor.
But I believe it is.
Miami has been a great running team all year long and will live off of that success in this game, but the Hurricanes have struggled throwing the ball and more importantly, are extremely inconsistent tossing the rock around.
Harris will come into this game having just recovered from an injury that kept him out for most of the last month of the season, with only some playing time against USF to speak of. Essentially, Harris will come into the Sun Bowl having played very little football over the past two months.
There is no denying that Harris is a very talented quarterback, but he struggles with his accuracy and can be an interception machine at the worst of times.
For how good the Miami running game is, and with the skill position players available, there’s no reason an experienced player like Harris should only be completing 54 percent of his passes, averaging under 200 yards, and throwing 12 interceptions in 8 games.
Freshman Tommy Rees isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire or scaring anyone very soon, while the Miami pass rush and pass defense is certainly pretty scary in their own right, yet the Irish do have some built-in advantages here.
First, Rees is generally pretty accurate and the Irish are playing in a spread system in which they can get by without depending on the long ball (so crucial to the teams past success) and will survive on a constant diet of short passes.
Miami’s pass rush is so fierce that many teams simply abandon throwing the ball, but the Irish have a perfect offensive system in order to take advantage of the blitz-heavy defense that is fixated on getting into the opponents backfield.
Plus, Notre Dame has committed more to the running game and that should also free up Rees to make some plays of his own. You can expect a lot of screens and draw plays in order to suck the fast Miami defense in and then run past them with players like Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, TJ Jones and Robby Toma.
This could play a subtle, yet very important outcome in determining the winner of this game.
Notre Dame has quietly put together a very disciplined season, ending the year 21st nationally with only 42.4 penalty yards per game.
Miami on the other hand, comes into the Sun Bowl as the 112th most penalized team.
Will discipline be a problem for the Hurricanes as they enter this game with an interim head coach?
It’s just not about penalties either…it’s also about playing smart football.
Will the Miami players be disciplined enough to stay focused, stick to their game plan and have the confidence to win without the coach who recruited them to play in Coral Gables?
5. Red Zone Play
Red Zone efficiency can be a misleading statistic (Miami is 103rd nationally, while Notre Dame is 52nd), but the percentages are 76% for the Hurricanes and 83% for the Irish, a difference of only seven percent.
Miami is a great running football team with an erratic passing game that lives off of the big throws downfield. In other words, their offense doesn’t lend itself to a very dangerous red zone attack.
Without the threat of going deep with wide receiver Leonard Hankerson and with Notre Dame loading up the box, will Jacory Harris be able to make the tight and accurate throws into small windows deep in Irish territory?
For Notre Dame, these red zone questions are answered with the type of game the offense had against USC, where Rees delivered on two passing touchdowns and Hughes ran the ball in for another score.
As long as Notre Dame plays smart and Rees doesn’t force a throw into coverage (see the interception against Army), the Irish should be able to take away more points when they get deep into Miami territory.
And let’s not forget, Notre Dame has perhaps the nation’s best kicker in David Ruffer.
This could be the biggest reason why Notre Dame has an edge and could ultimately win the game. You can also expect the media to talk about this constantly as we approach New Years Eve.
The reality is that Brian Kelly is a proven head football coach at the division-I level, while Miami is stuck with an interim head coach waiting to see who the new leader will be. Going into a bowl game, where distractions are a plenty, is almost never a good thing without a full-time head coach.
When Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham shortly after the conclusion of the 2004 regular season, the Irish put in a terrible effort in a 38-21 loss to Oregon State at the Insight Bowl, a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests.
College football history is littered with teams that underachieved at bowls games with interim coaches that players knew wouldn’t be around in a month’s time.
This isn’t meant to disparage Miami interim head coach Jeff Stoutland, because he is known as a very good teacher and one of the best offensive line minds in the country.
But, the rumors out of Coral Gables are that the administration is looking for a fresh face at coach and it is highly unlikely that any of Randy Shannon’s assistants stay on past this Sun Bowl contest.
Typically, this is a nightmare situation and most teams do not perform very well in these type of situations, however, there is a small chance that the players have always liked Stoutland and are prepared to play their hearts out for him.
But it is probably unlikely.
We’re already talking about a Miami team that was very undisciplined, very inconsistent, and lost focus at times during the regular season.
Just taking the reigns, coaching these players and implementing a game plan will be hard enough for Stoutland, nevermind the wherewithal and moxy it will take to get a bunch of young men to concentrate on the task at hand with so many rumors and distractions surrounding them.
At the end of the day, this game has a lot of appeal because of the two name brands and Notre Dame’s late season resurgence combined with Miami’s coaching search.
Because of this appeal, there is probably more buzz with this game than normally there should be and the aspect of this old rivalry also plays a part in that attention as well. I also think that many are curious to see which Miami team shows up and how the Irish will stack up against a team that was ranked in the top 15 to start the season.
This should be a close game, but Notre Dame has six advantages heading into the matchup that could mean the difference in bringing home a victory to South Bend.