Led by a rock solid front seven and cohesive back line buoyed by four interceptions – three courtesy of senior safety Harrison Smith – Notre Dame won its fourth straight game, this time vs. former hated rival Miami, 33-17 in the 77th annual Sun Bowl Friday afternoon.
The Irish jumped to a 14-0 lead thanks to a pair of touchdowns by junior wide receiver Michael Floyd. His first, a 3-yard pass at the end of a six-play, 54-yard opening drive was set up by a 36-yard catch and run on 3rd and 17.
Floyd's second score – a deep post route under thrown by freshman QB Tommy Rees – staked the Irish defense to a 14-0 advantage. That number was nearly enough as the nation's most improved unit imposed its will on the sloppy Hurricanes for the game's first 45 minutes.
Robert Blanton followed Floyd's leaping score with an interception on the following snap, changing field position for the remainder of the half. After a change of possession and quarter, Harrison Smith added the team's second interception, breaking on a poorly thrown Jacory Harris pass and returning the offering to the ND 45 yard line with the ensuing face mask moving the Irish into Miami territory at the 39.
One official play later, Cierre Wood burst over the right side and cut back through what used to be the heart of the Miami defense, navigating for an untouched 34-yard touchdown jaunt and commanding 21-0 edge.
Miami responded with two snaps – and another interception – again by Smith and again near midfield. The Irish were unable to capitalize but after backup quarterback Stephen Morris misfired near midfield – again to the waiting arms of the same Smith – the Irish struck again with the first of three David Ruffer field goals, this time from 40 yards out.
Ruffer, who gave the Irish leads of 24-0, 27-0 (on a 50-yard) boot, and 30-3 also missed the first field goal of his career, a 36-yard kick that was likely influenced by a calf injury he suffered on his previous connection.
"The short field goal, my cleat got locked and it cramped up my left calf. I felt fine on the sideline (prior to his miss) so I'm not going to make any excuses.
"I was going to miss eventually. It is what it is. It's better that it didn't really matter (the Irish led 30-3 at the time)."
Intermixed with Smith's three picks and Floyd's two touchdowns was a dominant effort on the ground. The Irish ran for 196 yards – three more than Miami's season average – while limiting the usually ground-oriented ‘Canes to just 103 yards on 24 carries. Notre Dame's total was a season-high as was the 48 rushing attempts. It marked the fifth time this season the Irish ran more than threw and not coincidentally, the fifth victory without a loss in that span.
As was their wont during a 7-5 regular season, Miami continually shot itself in the foot, with 10 penalties for 106 yards. The Irish made them pay for each mistake, possessing the football for a staggering 37:09, far and away the largest possession advantage for Brian Kelly in his first season at the helm.
"We're happy to play well today. That's where I would start: we got off to a great start," offered Kelly post-game. "Getting the three scores early, we felt like getting a great start was important for the (tenor) of the game. From our standpoint, we played a complete game especially in the first half."
That complete effort was again charged by a dominant defense. Miami earned just 123 yards on its first 26 snaps before breaching the scoreboard with a 46-yard field goal to end the half.
Ruffer erased that three-pointer with two field goals of his own and a commanding 30-3 edge sent most of the thoroughly chilled – not to mention shaken – Hurricane fans to the exits.
An afterthought touchdown at the 10:36 mark of the 4th Quarter was just the third scored vs. Bob Diaco's defense in the last 19 quarters. Miami added another late but the contest was never in doubt.
Unlikely turnaroundNotre Dame's last four games served as a polar opposite from anything seen at the school over the last decade – or at least since an 8-0 start in 2002. But unlike that paper tiger, this increasingly impressive group is unlikely to fade the following season.
"Well Michael (Floyd) was healthy…the running game had taken on an identity and we felt offensively good things would happen – and of course, we were just going to continue to feed off the confidence that our defensive group has," Kelly said of his expectations entering the contest.
"I expected us to play well. It was just going to come down to our quarterback's ability to get the ball to our playmakers…Tommy did a great job."
Rees finished 15 of 29 for 201 yards without an interception. His two touchdown tosses to Floyd helped the junior star tie and break the program's career record for touchdown receptions set by Jeff Samardzija during the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
Floyd finished with 6 grabs for 109 yards to earn the C.M. Hendricks Most Valuable Player Trophy. He concluded the 2010 season – and possibly his Irish career – ranked second in career receptions (171) and third in receiving yards (2,536) while tying for second place in school history with 13 separate 100-yard outings.
While Rees and Floyd kicked off the offensive fireworks, it was senior power back Robert Hughes who performed the bulk of the heavy lifting. Hughes posted a career-high 27 carries in his final game. His 81-yard total was a season high. Wood matched Hughes' output, albeit on 15 fewer rushing attempts while slot receiver Theo Riddick carried 8 times for 32 yards from the Wildcat formation.
Notre Dame has now won 27 consecutive contests in which they've out-gained their opponent on the ground.
"I knew when Coach Kelly gave me the opportunity to start this game that I was going to make the most of it," Hughes said of the first start of his senior season and in more than a calendar year.
Asked if he enjoys running the football in the cold (game time temperatures hovered in the low 30s) Hughes answered.
"I love running the football in any weather."
To a man, Irish fans agree.