Defensive MVPHarrison Smith – The senior safety tied the Sun Bowl record with three interceptions and also matched the single-game high at the program for the decade, tying Shane Walton's three-pick effort in the season opener of 2002.
In the process, Smith also tied Walton's season total of seven interceptions, the most for a Notre Dame player since Todd Lyght picked off eight passes in 1989. Smith's seven interceptions this fall tied him for second place in the FBS and only two other FBS players had three picks in a game this season.
Lyght, Walton, Smith, Dave Duerson, Mike Townsend (a school-record 10), Clarence Ellis, Tom Schoen, Tony Carey, and Tom MacDonald, and Angelo Bertelli are the only defenders in Irish history to pick off at least seven passes in one season.
"When we have guys like Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, Robert Blanton, all re-routing their receivers and getting them off their timing, it just makes it really easy for a safety to sit back there and (make plays)," Smith humbly stated post-game."
After failing to record an interception through first 29 career games, Smith has now thieved seven passes in his last nine contests dating back to an October 2 matchup vs. Boston College. You'll forgive him if the first few picks elicited more of a reaction than those in the Sun Bowl.
"There was one play against Utah where I got excited when I made a pick and (defensive backs) coach Martin was making fun of me, saying, ‘Act like you've made a play before,'" Smith added of his understated appearance despite the huge afternoon. "So now I like to celebrate with my teammates – not over the top."
Smith added seven tackles in the Sun Bowl including a vicious hit on QB Stephen Morris at 11-minute mark.
He enters 2011 as the only player in program history to record at least 200 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss and 15 pass breakups. Add seven interceptions to those numbers…and, likely, add a captaincy designation for the developing leader next fall.
Offensive MVPMichael Floyd – His final numbers, six receptions for 109 yards and two touchdowns, were standard fare for the junior star. The 109 yards were more than half of the team's total in the victory – and 73 were accrued in the first two drives.
It was his 13th career 100-yard game to tie Tom Gatewood (1969-71) for second all-time behind Floyd's former teammate Golden Tate (15). Floyd also finished second to Jeff Samardzija in career receptions (177 to 171) and third in total yards with 2,539 (Tate 2,707 and Samardzija 2,593).
His 12 TD catches this season (in 12 games) tied Samardzija for fourth all-time (Tate tied the record of 15 last season set by Samardzija in 2005 and Rhema McKnight 2006).
Finally, his second TD grab of the afternoon placed him first in program history with 28, surpassing Samardzija's record he set exclusively in a two-season span (‘05 and '06).
Tommy Rees and Robert Hughes deserved consideration, but Floyd was the difference-maker – the playmaker – and as head coach Brian Kelly pointed out post-game, the player around whom the entire late-season offense, revolved.
As easy as 1-2-3…Leads of 7-0, 21-0 and 30-3 were acquired through consistent blocking, tackling, and execution. The latter representing the difference between a merely good team (Notre Dame in November 2010) and great one (Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl).
Three notable examples of execution in congress with the physical tenets of the sport:
- 1st Quarter – Opening Drive: With the Irish facing 3rd and 16 from their own 40-yard line – and after the offense absorbed a sloppy start and physical beating from the fired up ‘Canes defense early – freshman QB Tommy Rees put a slant in Michael Floyd's gut at the ND 46-yard line. While it appeared Floyd did the rest, barreling to the Miami 26 for a crucial first down, it was sophomore teammate Theo Riddick that provided the running lane, unleashing a downfield block on the outside shoulder of Miami safety Vaughn Telemaque two yards prior to the marker to provide Floyd an unfettered path.
Perfect technique and a physical finish – not to mention a bark at the flattened defender – by Notre Dame's superstar in waiting.
- 2nd Quarter – Welcome to college football: Three steps to the outside. That's all it took for junior Darius Fleming – lined up at defensive end – to turn ballyhooed offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson's pass protection base, and thus his balance, on his back (outside) leg – Fleming then exploded through the freshman's vulnerable inside foot to make a bee-line to quarterback Jacory Harris, who's rushed (terrible) toss landed in the waiting arms of Harrison Smith for an Irish interception. Two snaps later, ND frosh Cierre Wood ran 34 yards untouched for a score and 21-0 advantage.
Henderson will be a good one. Fleming will rank among the nation's best hybrid OLB/DE in 2011.
- 3rd Quarter run-off – When T.O.P. matters: Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar and head coach Brian Kelly are in agreement: time of possession is football's most overrated statistic. Except of course, when their team holds the decisive edge:
Leading 27-3 entering the second half, Notre Dame forced the ‘Canes offense into a 3-and-out. Receiving the ball at their own 35, the Irish embarked on a 15-play, 63 yard drive that resulted in a David Ruffer field goal because Notre Dame couldn't punch it in from the Miami three-yard line. What they could do, however, was eat 7:00 of game clock and put the broken down Hurricanes in a position to need four touchdowns in the contest's final 22 minutes to earn a victory.
The Irish converted two third downs (passes to Floyd and Eifert) and prior, a 4th down (run to Hughes) on the drive. A touchdown would have effectively ended the contest, but a 15-play, 7-minute drive served as a death blow to the ‘Cane's comeback hopes nonetheless.
Pedal off the metalWhile Miami stood by its heaters with hands in their collective pockets, and donned in stay-warm garb that resembled – as Irish sophomore Tyler Eifert mused post-game "something I'd go hunting in" – Notre Dame's fired up crew cajoled, bounced and prepared for onslaught during the repeated commercial breaks.
Prior to every kick-off (and thus following a series of touchdowns and field goals), Notre Dame's coverage group danced in unison – then completed the mission.
Prior to – and usually at the conclusion of – every defensive series, Irish players communicated, then charged the field ready to lay waste to another overmatched offense.
It was a scene reminiscent of the season's final month – only now we've come to expect it. Notre Dame's defensive turnaround after the Week 10 bye was staggering. An ecstatic Bob Diaco hugged coaches and associates on the field after the game – shaking hands while beaming with a pair of ND website writers.
It's easy to see why – nearly to a man – the players love their first-year defensive coordinator. His attitude is infectious. His game plans – save for one head-shaker – superb. Notre Dame expertly scouted Miami's delayed/designed QB roll-outs; their execution of Diaco's plan superb with the line's interior tackles often looping and lying in wait for a Harris/Morris foray from the pocket.
Opinions aside, among Diaco's greatest gift as a coordinator is his ability to teach and motivate, because Notre Dame's defense ranks as one of the most improved units in college football this season.
Bowl bitsTrailing 30-3 midway through the third period, frigid ‘Canes fans who made the 1,930-mile trek from South Beach to El Paso began to hit the exits en masse. Their exit coincidentally preceded the first official sighting of any Miami offense, a mere than 45 minutes into the contest.
For more nearly 50 minutes, Notre Dame thoroughly dominated Miami in an old school rout – one from which no honor could be salvaged. The Irish then took the pedal off the medal, and the rag-tag ‘Canes stumbled into 14 points. Credit Miami for never quitting, though I'm not sure what you'd call the first 45-50 minutes. Can you only quit at the end of something?
On tap for 2011: stepping on an opponent's throat – even if he already can't breathe.
Festivities: From the "water is wet" department: Notre Dame and Miami set a Sun Bowl attendance record with 54,021 attendees. The mark broke the previous record set last year by Oklahoma and Stanford.
It was also the 13th time in Irish bowl history that the players wore jerseys with their names on the back. Notre Dame has won eight of those 13 contests including the 2008 Hawaii Bowl – the first contest with names adorn since before the Holtz era. (Holtz's Irish won five games and lost four without jerseys donning player names.) Expect to see the names remain on bowl jerseys for the foreseeable future as players are allowed to keep the worn souvenirs.
Numbers of note: On October 31, Tulsa scored a touchdown on its opening drive vs. the Irish defense. From that drive through the end of the third quarter of the Sun Bowl, Notre Dame allowed just one more opponent to hit pay dirt (USC's exhilarating 4-play, 2-yard drive). 18 Quarters/one touchdown allowed. I've found the formula for winning football.
David Ruffer tied the Notre Dame bowl record with three successful field goals. He matched Scott Cengia's mark from the 1997 Independence Bowl. (Completely unrelated, the female halves of the Cengia and O'Malley marriages remain good friends since college in 1998).
Notre Dame's 37-point outburst was the second-highest bowl total in program history (The Clausen-Tate Hawaii Bowl mark of 49 points may never be duplicated, as few post-season defenses will be as shoddy as was that crew).
Best line overheard in the press box (between two other site's writers): "Skip Holtz is a great coach…" eliciting this response: "Can you be a great coach if you lose to Zach Frazier at home?" and the kicker, "No, but you can be a great offensive coordinator." (Frazier is an ND transfer who finished his career at Connecticut.)
Moment reminiscent of the old-school rivalry: As the Irish ran out the clock, the jabbering – and hitting – continued. It escalated on a Theo Riddick run that resulted in negative yards but also included several fallen defenders and a couple of good (clean) shots on Riddick. Post-play activity continued with one ‘Cane and one Irish player jawing face-to-face. The conclusion of the extracurricular activity: the Irish player forming a U with his hands directly in the face mask of his foe…and earning a spot on the sidelines for his gesture.
After 60 minutes of non-stop smack talk, the exchange was not only warranted, but entertaining...especially from about 5 yards away.