Irish end year hot, despite bowl freeze
EL PASO, Texas
Two hours before kickoff, it was obvious Miami had no interest in being here.
Temperature: 34 degrees. Wind: Hard enough to notice. Tractors methodically moved a layer of snow from the artificial surface of the stadium just a bridge away from Mexico.
This wasn't South Beach, man. It was west Texas, but it might as well have been South Bend.
Notre Dame's 33-17 Sun Bowl victory over the Hurricanes on Friday hardly was what college football's season-ending celebration is all about. No sun-drenched photo-ops with celebrities. No tourists on vacation who just happen to stop by for a game.
This was blue-collar, snowflakes swirling around the stadium, Midwest-style football.
While the Irish (8-5) shrugged at the cold and refused to shiver in their shorts and sweatshirts, the Hurricanes reluctantly left their cozy dressing room outfitted in full thermal underclothes, complete with the head gear that covers the neck, ears and mouth.
"We're from northern Indiana," said Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith. "We took this as a home game, in terms of the weather. I don't know about it snowing, almost in Mexico. When we came out, we don't care. We're from northern Indiana. We were excited to play."
Added Irish quarterback Tommy Rees: "(The Hurricanes) were pretty shocked to see the snow."
Likewise, Miami (7-6) was shocked by Notre Dame's fast start.
Rees, dumbfounded by three interceptions and a fumble against Southern California more than a month ago, got smart in a hurry. Two first-quarter touchdown passes to game MVP Michael Floyd, along with three first-half interceptions by Smith of Miami QB Jacory Harris, made it seem even colder for the Hurricanes.
By halftime, a 27-3 Notre Dame lead all but decided the issue.
Rees was a new man under center. No turnovers. No sacks. Completing 15 of 29 passes for 201 yards.
Day and night from USC. What happened?
"The running game had taken on an identity," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, whose ground assault generated 196 net yards and a 34-yard TD run by Cierre Wood. Wood and Robert Hughes each rushed for 81 yards.
"We were going to continue to feed off the confidence that our defensive group has," Kelly said. "It was really going to come down to our quarterback's ability to make some plays and get the ball to our playmakers. Tommy (Rees) did a great job."
Said Rees: "Those 15 practices from USC to now helped a lot, take some of those mistakes out. Miami and Southern Cal are two different teams. Miami did a lot of blitzes. They played man coverage, where USC was playing zone.
"I tried to not make the same mistakes as the last game. That's what I focused on the last 15 practices."
He couldn't dodge the pressure. Kelly wanted more than just game management out of his quarterback.
"As a quarterback, you always want to do more than just manage the game," Rees said. "You want to go out there and make plays. Having that one-on-one time with Coach Kelly and (offensive coordinator) Coach (Charley) Molnar, and having 15 practices to look at Miami, helps an inordinate amount."
Notre Dame, using what Kelly likes to think is a quick-strike offense, controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes. Maybe there's something to a running game that can deflate an opponent.
But, what went wrong with Miami?
Was it the season-ending issues -- two losses and a coaching change -- that contributed to the 'Canes collapse? Was it the weather? Was Notre Dame just that good?
"I'm not an excuse-maker," said interim coach Jeff Stoutland. "Never have been. Weather is weather. I felt strong about this group we have here."
Since he took over the helm at Notre Dame more than a year ago, Kelly has stressed toughness and consistency. Those two character traits, more than a flashy offense or star power, impacted the outcome. Kelly is doing something right.
"I don't know if one game sets who you are or where you want to go," Kelly said. "Clearly, we're gaining a lot of confidence. We've beat a lot of good football teams later in the year as we've kinda come together and found our identity."
Notre Dame's season sat on the brink about two months ago. Back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa left the Irish at 4-5, ready for another late-season collapse.
Remember, these were the same guys who were 0-for-November a year ago.
Kelly, though, wouldn't allow it to happen. He didn't worry about turning things around and winning out. He worried about the next day. Then, the next. Then, the next.
"It's a process," he said, and said often.
He had to go through the process without his No. 1 quarterback. A knee injury against Tulsa ended Dayne Crist's season. By then, tight end Kyle Rudolph already had been lost because of a hamstring injury.
More hurts mounted. No excuses were offered. "Next man in," was Kelly's mantra.
Nobody's ever going to feel sorry for Notre Dame.
Couple all those problems with off-field issues like the death of student videographer Declan Sullivan while on a scissor lift that blew over during strong winds at a practice Oct. 27, and the suicide of a female Saint Mary's College student who had made a sexual assault charge against a Notre Dame football player shortly before her death, and the weight of the world was on Kelly's shoulders.
Resolution won't come easily, if ever. Yet, Kelly and his players who have come to believe, continue to make significant progress.
The Sun Bowl win was another key element in the growth process.
Al Lesar covers Notre Dame for the South Bend Tribune.