Just (Don't Lose) Baby

When is "not losing" more important than winning? When the wrath of the Strength & Conditioning coach for the duration of the off-season hangs in the balance, of course.

You play to win the game…right?

At the end of the 1987 season, Notre Dame lost its final three games including a 35-10 pasting at the hands of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. They won the national title the following season.

In 1984 and 1997, the Irish won four and five straight games, respectively, to conclude the regular season and qualify for a bowl game. Both teams lost that post-season matchup then emerged with disparate results (5-6 and a coach firing in '85; 9-2 with a Gator Bowl bid in '98).

In other words: the Sun Bowl likely won't serve as an indicator for 2011.

Head coach Brian Kelly was asked Tuesday evening about the bottom-line importance of winning vs. Miami on December 31.

"You want to win the game because you're carrying with you in the off-season, the loss," he admitted. "That's the number one thing because it's such a long time (before) you get the chance to eradicate that. So I think that's more than anything else.

"It's important to me and I know it's important to our players. They don't want (Strength & Conditioning) Coach Longo with a loss on the first day of winter conditioning. They want him with a win on his mind. So I think they recognize that too."

Notre Dame snapped a 9-game bowl losing skid in 2008 with a rousing 49-21 win in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. It was an experience then-freshman Ethan Johnson cherished.

"So far I'm undefeated in bowl games so I'd like to keep that going," Johnson joked. "Just going in and having a great feeling in the off-season is really important.

"For the program and for the younger guys, just having the confidence that we can go in and win a bowl is important. Also sending off the seniors right. That's a big part of it."

Johnson noted the Hawaii Bowl catapulted the Irish through the off-season and into 2009.

"I feel like it did. Later in the (2009) season, I can't really comment on that (4-game losing skid). But going into the season, I felt like we were on top of the world and it really did help our off-season workouts. Guys were just more into them and into the program."

The Irish started that '09 campaign with a 35-0 shutout over Nevada (who finished with 8 wins) and won five of their first seven contests before the well-documented November collapse.

They don't make it easy

The Irish will have to earn the aforementioned bowl victory vs. a Miami pass defense that finished No. 2 nationally against the pass.

In his four games as the team's main quarterback, freshman Tommy Rees encountered pass efficiency defenses ranked 101 (Tulsa), 81 (Utah), 84 (Army) and 82 (Southern Cal). Miami presents a new set of problems for a quarterback whose greatest strength to date is getting the ball out of his hands quickly.

"They play man-on. Their hands are on you," Kelly said of Miami's cornerbacks. "There isn't a lot of space. This isn't a (defense) that's going to play off-quarters and let you throw it and rally it."

(Quarters coverage features a zone that divides the field with four defensive backs each responsible for one-fourth of the field.)

"They're going to be right on you; it's bump-and-run; it's tight coverage. You better be ready to be accurate with the football and be able to put it on your receivers. That's why they've been so good – and they generate a really good pass rush with just four (defensive linemen). Those things in combination generally mean (a team) is going to be pretty good vs. the pass."

Can the Irish attack this aggressive coverage with myriad crossing routes? In other words: backyard football 101 vs. man coverage?

"No, its man principles in a sense that even if they play quarters, (their) hands are on you but they're going to play with the safeties (in) half coverage over the top. (In other words, the safeties still lend deep help to the cornerbacks.)

"(But) it's a tighter coverage alignment. They're not going to play off."

Tight coverage at the line of scrimmage could eliminate Rees' use of bubble screens and quick outs/flares to his receivers.

After enduring what was largely a horrendous second half at USC, Rees responded to complete both of his passes on the game winning drive – including a key 11-yard out-route on a roll left to start the series. The trials of an emergent effort vs. Tulsa and a win at USC a month apart have allowed the first-year QB to gain the necessary confidence to attack any coverage scheme.

"You have to put (struggles) behind you. We were down (at USC) and the team needed a drive. You have to block everything out, and my teammates and coaches did a good job of getting me ready. You have to keep a level head."

That level head has afforded Rees completion streaks of 8, 5, 6 (Tulsa); 8 (Utah); 6 of 7 (Army); and 6, 5 (USC) over four contests.

"When you get the ball out quick and you complete one, two…you feel like you can make any throw. Your confidence builds and that's just something you have to work towards. When you're on a streak like that, the offense is really moving."

Finding that rhythm in the Sun Bowl will be a challenge vs. the best pass defense Notre Dame has faced this season.

Irish Passing Stats – 2010

The number in parenthesis denotes the opponents' final defensive pass efficiency rating at season's end:
  • Stanford (21): 26-45, 307 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT for TD (Dayne Crist)
  • Boston College (22): 24-45, 203 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT (Crist)
  • Pittsburgh (27): 24-39, 242 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT (Crist)
  • Michigan State (32): 32-55, 369 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT (Crist)
  • Western Michigan (73): 20-30, 299 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT (Crist, John Goodman, Nate Montana)
  • Utah (81): 13-20, 129 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT (Rees)
  • USC (82): 20-34, 149 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT (Rees)
  • Army (84): 13-20, 214 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT (Rees)
  • Navy (86): 25-38, 257 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT (Crist, Rees)
  • Purdue (94): 19-26, 205 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT (Crist)
  • Michigan (96): 21-44, 381 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT (Crist, Rees, Montana)
  • Tulsa (101): 33-56, 334 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT – one for a TD. (Crist, Rees)

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories