#1 Run more than you throwAs noted yesterday, the Irish were 4-0 this season when they ran the ball more than they passed. They finished 0-4 when throwing for more than 300 yards and lost four of five games when attempting 40 or more passes.
I have no doubt the Irish will attempt to run Friday. Do they have the discipline to stick with it after back-to-back punts? Will they continue to batter away with senior power back Robert Hughes, thereby testing a Miami defense that allowed 181, 298, 185, 251, and 135 rushing yards in its five losses? The Irish finished 4-1 when running for a mere 145 yards during the regular season. That's the minimum goal in the Sun Bowl.
Running, even on the occasionally 3rd and 3, simplifies the game for freshman QB Tommy Rees; it sends a message to the much-improved Irish offensive line; and more important: it tests Miami's will under adverse conditions in a bowl they never envisioned playing entering the season.
Both teams talk about how excited they are to play in this game. There's only one way to make a defense prove it.
#2 Sudden ChangeNotre Dame – namely its quarterback – will likely turn the ball over today. In just over 140 drop-backs, Rees has committed nine turnovers (8 interceptions and a fumble). The Irish defense has, however, continually stiffened, yielding an ensuing touchdown on just two of those mistakes – one after taking the field with their backs to the goal line on a two-yard scoring drive by USC. (Rees also threw an interception returned for a touchdown vs. Tulsa).
Head coach Brian Kelly has simplified the offense for his young signal-caller, but Miami's athleticism will strike at some point in the Sun Bowl. It's up to Bob Diaco's much-improved defense to again bail out a mistake prone QB.
#3 Who's the X – Factor?In this case, it's likely the Z, because Z receiver (slot) Theo Riddick – purportedly at full strength since mid-December – will return to the starting lineup. Riddick exploded in the four contests prior to suffering a season-altering ankle injury, catching 33 passes for 343 yards and three scores.
Today's test will be two-fold: knocking off the rust and emerging as a reliable option for Rees – who had developed a rapport with Riddick's replacement Robby Toma – and doing so vs. the best secondary Riddick has faced this season.
Similar athletes will greet Riddick at every snap. That's a tough task for a sophomore that's played and practiced his position for less than a calendar year.
Projected 1st Round selection Brandon Harris will likely lock horns with Floyd on the corner. I favor the remarkable Floyd in that matchup – and it must be at least a wash if the Irish are to prevail.
Can another threat emerge? Is freshman T.J. Jones – healthy for the first time since at least Week Seven – up to the task vs. solid cornerback Ryan Hill? Can Toma contribute with two chain-moving grabs?
More important, can tight end Tyler Eifert continue to win his battles – in this instance, vs. top tier athletes – downfield?
The Irish need an X factor to emerge to augment Floyd on the outside, but it won't be easy vs. the nation's No. 2 ranked pass defense.
#4 The first step is backThe Irish defense surrendered just nine passing touchdowns this season – seven were at the expense of the secondary. Of those, just one could be considered a communication breakdown: Jonathan Baldwin's 56-yard stop-and-go for a 4th Quarter score in Game Six. Safety Jamoris Slaughter forgot the cardinal rule of that play's defensive schemed – a safety's first step is always back.
Save for a rough start vs. Michigan (including two crippling 31-yard passes in the first quarter), the secondary was solid in this regard over the course of 12 games. It will have to be again on Friday. Downfield completions will happen vs. ‘Canes QB Jacory Harris and his trio of talented targets. Mitigating that damage is to make the tackle after the play.
Awards PredictionsThe Sun Bowl will award four trophies following today's contests – one far more important than the others.
My best guess for each:
C.M Hendricks Most Valuable Player Trophy: LB Manti Te'o (Notre Dame); LB Sean Spence (Miami)
John Folmer Most Valuable Special Teams Player Trophy: Coverage Demon Bennett Jackson (Notre Dame); K Matt Bosher (Miami)
Jimmy Rogers Jr. Most valuable Lineman Trophy: DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (Notre Dame); DE Allen Bailey (Miami)
And finally, the Hyundai Sun Bowl Championship Trophy: Notre Dame