Hyundai Sun Bowl
KICKOFF: Friday, 2 ET
SITE: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
SURFACE: Hellas Matrix Turf
SERIES: Notre Dame leads 15-7-1 (last meeting, 1990, Notre Dame 29-20)
RECORDS: Miami 7-5, Notre Dame 7-5
POLLS: Neither team is ranked.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
-- For Miami: There is a big question about the Hurricanes' motivation. They played uninspired football in the finale against USF, and with the firing of coach Randy Shannon, there is a lot of instability in the program at this point. Still, if anything can get their juices going, it just might be a matchup with Notre Dame.
The Hurricanes stepped up their running game as the season wore on and finished by topping the 200-yard mark in five of their last seven games. TB Damien Berry led with 865 rushing yards but had some problems with fumbles late in the year, opening the way for redshirt freshman Lamar Miller and sophomore Mike James to assume much of the workload. Senior TB Graig Cooper also earned a start late in the year on his way back from a knee injury. True freshman Storm Johnson, who spent much of the season on the kickoff return team, had the year's longest run from scrimmage, a 71-yard touchdown dash against USF.
Going into the season, Miami looked so deep at wide receiver that the loss of Thearon Collier, who transferred to Southern California, didn't seem like a big deal. But essentially three wideouts are carrying the load for the Hurricanes with Leonard Hankerson (66 catches, 1,085 yards), Travis Benjamin (49-699), and LaRon Byrd (37-394) doing the bulk of the receiving. Tight end hardly figures in. Miami got only 17 receptions combined out of Asante Cleveland, Chase Ford and Richard Gordon. QB Jacory Harris was hurt and missed three games, but he still had 12 interceptions. Freshman QB Stephen Morris threw eight picks in his four starts. Harris figures to start in the bowl.
The Hurricanes have looked good at times defending the run, registering 66 tackles for loss (not including sacks), but they have been inconsistent. They weren't able to stop Virginia late in the game to get the ball back to the offense, and they are giving up an average of more than 170 rushing yards per game. That ranks only No. 81 among 120 FBS teams.
Like the run defense, the Hurricanes have had their moments defending against the pass. After recording only 14 interceptions in the last two seasons combined, they have 16 this season with SS Ray-Ray Armstrong and CB Ryan Hill leading with three apiece. They also have 37 sacks with DT/DE Allen Bailey (seven) and DEs Olivier Vernon (six) and Adewale Ojomo (five) leading the way. But also like their effort against the run, the Hurricanes have had costly breakdowns against the pass. USF hit three big pass plays on its final scoring drive in regulation to send the game into overtime.
P-PK Matt Bosher averaged 44.3 yards on punts and was 12 of 16 on field goals, but he had a couple of hiccups on PATs, missing three in his 38 attempts after his career making 90 of 90 in the last two seasons. Miami scored on a punt return (Benjamin) and a kickoff return (Miller) in the loss to Ohio State, but the Hurricanes were average for the year, averaging only 4.8 yards on punt returns and 19.5 yards on kick returns.
-- For Notre Dame: Notre Dame once looked down its nose at going to a so-called minor bowl. But it's a big deal now and these guys charged hard and overcame a lot to get to the postseason.
Like so many other areas of the Notre Dame depth chart, the running game took a big hit when leading rusher Armando Allen was lost for the season because of early November hip surgery. But sophomore Cierre Wood stepped into the starting role and last week passed Allen in yards gained on the season, with 522. He and the offensive line face a Miami defense that's just 81st in the country against the run.
QB Dayne Crist, who had his ups and downs throughout his time trying to replace Jimmy Clausen, was lost for the year with a knee injury in the Oct. 30 Tulsa game. Enter true freshman backup Tommy Rees and he has come through, with speed bumps, of course, but also with a banged up offense. Rees is 3-0 as a college starter heading into this game and the Fighting Irish, behind the pair of quarterbacks, are 29th in the country passing the ball. However, Miami is the No. 2 team in the nation against the pass.
Notre Dame is in the middle of the pack nationally in rushing defense and suffered a hit when it lost NT Ian Williams for the last four games. But this defense has come up big on more than one occasion this season, including shutting down the Army option attack less than a month after it was trampled by the Navy option.
When you're ranked 52nd of 120 teams in the country in pass defense, it means you're doing something right and the Irish have gotten better as the year wore on. They face the No. 49 passing offense in this game so there's no real distinct advantage either way.
PK David Ruffer was perfect on his 15 field goal attempts this year and has made all 20 as a college kicker. P Ben Turk has had his moments dropping 23 of his 64 punts inside the opponent's 20, only three going for touchbacks. The ND return game has been weak all year.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Leonard Hankerson -- Hankerson became Miami's go-to guy in the passing game, ending the regular season with 66 receptions for 1,085 yards. That's nearly as many catches as the next two receivers combined (Travis Benjamin with 40 and LaRon Byrd with 37). Hankerson also set a school record with 12 touchdown catches, one more than Michael Irvin had in 1986.
-TB Lamar Miller -- Miller didn't lead the Hurricanes in rushing -- that honor went to TB Damien Berry -- but there wasn't any doubt that over the last month of the season he had become Miami's featured back. He ended up with 633 yards, averaging 6.1 per carry.
-LB Colin McCarthy -- McCarthy was in double digits in tackles in each of his last three games, registering 35 of his 105 stops over that span. He has nine tackles for loss, among them a sack, and also had one of Miami's 16 interceptions.
QB Tommy Rees -- The freshman took over for Dayne Crist when Crist was lost for the season Oct. 30 with a knee injury. Rees has had the ups and downs you would expect from a freshman but has been productive, and he is 3-0 as a starter.
-WR Michael Floyd -- He should benefit from the time leading up to the New Year's Eve bowl game to get his legs rested and healed. Floyd and Rees will have their hands full with a Miami defense that ranks No. 2 in the country against the pass.
-NT Ian Williams -- He has been out the last four games with a knee injury but is expected back for the bowl. His presence should helped limit a Miami running game that has averaged over 190 yards per game through the first 12 games.