On October 30th I asked a question. Is this the bottom? Moments prior to my writing that post the Fighting Irish had found a way to lose to Tulsa at home.
In the seven days preceding that stunning blow we had also witnessed an inept defensive game plan get shredded by Navy and mourned the loss of Declan Sullivan. Oh yeah, and what seemed like every "star" player on the team was on crutches. The Irish were 4-5 with Utah, Army and USC left on the schedule.
At that point the thought of playing in a bowl game, especially a decent one, seemed laughable. In fact it was pretty much the furthest thing from my mind.
I have always believed that it isn’t truly fair to judge a coach until at least year three. That said I also know quite well that as each year ticks off the calendar in the post Holtz era the patience of the fan base grows shorter. Boob was litmus paper for a soon to be repeated cycle of mediocrity and pain. We had no time for the Willingham effect. To top it off the last three years of the Weis tenure were agonizing for a litany of reasons.
When Brian Kelly walked in the door and said that he needed a "5 minute plan" I wholeheartedly agreed. For Brian Kelly to be successful long term I felt like seeing something at least resembling progress during the 2010 campaign was going to be critical. I use the term "progress" with no real definition in this case. There are no hard numbers. I mean progress in the way that you might define pornography. You just know it when you see it. In short we would all need reason to believe that the arrow was pointing up by the end of the season.
As of October 30th progress was definitely not in the building. In fact from where I was sitting it appeared to be nowhere in sight. I was concerned. Real concerned. Then a funny thing happened. The Irish had a bye week then came out a week later on Senior Day and held a solid Utah offense that had been averaging 41 points per game to 3 points. Suddenly the clouds parted a bit, the Irish were back to .500. Then they took a trip to Yankee Stadium and picked up win #6 over Army with the defense again leading the way. Then to top it off the Irish traveled to USC and snapped an 8 game losing streak to the Trojans to finish the season at 7-5!
This team went 3-0 in November with the defense playing better than they have since I can remember. Some seniors like Brian Smith, Robert Hughes and Duval Kamara stepped up and turned in a few memorable individual performances. Several other younger players also stepped up and made some big plays. Most importantly, despite the rash of injuries, the previous near misses, some controversy, and the doubts of many loyal followers like myself, this team came together and played like a team when it mattered most. The strong November finish earned them a berth in the Sun Bowl against Miami in the process. I think that satisfies the requirements for that progress that I was looking for this fall.
Beating the Hurricanes on New Year’s Eve would really put a cherry on top and really send us into the off season with some momentum. I think that will happen as well. I know the Irish are the underdog and to be honest I kind of prefer it that way, especially against Miami. But this Notre Dame team has a lot going for it heading into that game.
For starters the city of El Paso is home to a tight knit group of Notre Dame Alumni but also boasts a huge Subway Alumni fan base. My Dad "The Coach" is among them. Tickets went like hotcakes and set a Sun Bowl record by selling out in less than 24 hours. When the Fighting Irish take the field on New Year’s Eve the vast majority of the 52,000 fans in the stands are going to be rooting hard for Notre Dame. And in most cases they will be Subway Alumni that are in attendance at a Notre Dame game for the first time in their lives. Those people are going to be into it. Way into it. Overall I expect a lively crowd that is heavily in favor of the Irish.
On paper these two teams look relatively even. Most talking heads incorrectly assume that Miami is more athletic than Notre Dame but I personally don’t believe that to be the case. If you take a look at the nerdery I put together last winter you will find that over the course of the last 5 years Notre Dame has compiled an average Rivals class ranking of 10.4 while Miami has compiled an average class ranking of 14.6. I fully realize that data mining isn’t the be all end all but on the most basic level I think it proves my point. There isn’t a significant gap in athleticism between these two squads, in fact it is pretty even.
Now that we have removed that perceived Miami advantage from the equation what do we have left? Two 7-5 football teams that finished up their seasons on very different trajectories. I already discussed the nice turn of events that the Fighting Irish had in November but Miami experienced almost the exact opposite. After losing 3 of their last 5 games Head Coach Randy Shannon was fired and the Hurricanes were set adrift.
In the weeks that have passed since parting ways with Shannon, Al Golden has been hired to replace him but will not coach the Sun Bowl. Instead offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will fill in as the interim front man while his new boss Golden observes. The situation is less than optimal for the Hurricanes.
Whether or not Miami junior quarterback Jacory Harris will get the start over Freshman Stephen Morris remains to be seen but Harris ran with the 1’s at practice on Monday. I personally hope Harris starts for a few reasons. One I don’t want any lame excuses if ND wins the game. Two he has a propensity for throwing the ball to the other team and shutting it down after taking a couple of licks. With the way the Notre Dame defense finished the season I like those chances.
Players from both sides are aware of the former importance of this once heated rivalry but none of them are old enough to have any personal recollection of it. Everything they know about it they probably learned from watching the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The U. That said I don’t think any of them will find it too difficult to bring at least a taste of that rivalry back to life on December 31st.
Overall this sets up to be one of the better bowl games of the season. As a Notre Dame fan I am obviously biased but the Sun Bowl is the second longest running bowl game and the renewed rivalry between Notre Dame and Miami is tough to beat.
My original plan was to stay home for the holidays but about 10 minutes after UCONN kicked a field goal to beat South Florida and win the Big East The Coach called me up and told me that he bought a fistful of Sun Bowl Tickets. Less than 24 hours later the matchup was official and my plans changed. There will be three generations of us sitting about 2/3 of the way up on the 50 yard line, sunny side of the field. I expect to see the Irish pull out a close one.
Before I log off a couple of quick notes on El Paso. Seeing as to how The Coach lives there I have stopped through there a time or two.
He and I attended the 2002 Sun Bowl just for grins and watched a Kyle Orton led Purdue squad upset Washington. I don't remember a lot about the game except for the stadium and the atmosphere. It was great. You will find the stadium to be just small enough that there really isn't a bad seat in the house and the concessions are also top notch. In addition to your standard fare there will be booths set up selling great burritos and other local fare. When the locals ask you if you want "red or green" they are asking which type of chilis you want your order made with.
As for the city itself there are a ton of great places to eat. If you are looking for great Mexican food I am a huge fan of the Little Diner in Canutillo. It is tough to beat but if you can't stand the heat it might not be for you. If you want to go where the locals go for a jam up burger hit Rosco's Burger Inn. It's a dive but the burgers will change your life.
If it is serious steak that you desire there is only one answer and you should accept no substitute. Make the drive out to Indian Cliffs Ranch just East of town and visit Cattleman's Steakhouse. You won't be disappointed. I have a handful of great places to eat in the Great Pass of the West but if I had to pick one for a one time visitor Cattleman's would be it.
On a final note, I'll pass on one more tip courtesy of regular OFD Commentator TLNDMA. The Notre Dame Club of El Paso has information on several events for Notre Dame Fans posted on their website.
See you there, and Go Irish!