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December 30, 2010

Sun rises again on Miami-ND rivalry

Most of the players in Friday's Sun Bowl weren't even born the last time Miami and Notre Dame faced off, but they need no lessons about the history of this rivalry.

The reminders are all over the place, whether they're walking around campus or listening to famous alumni.

SUN BOWL

Miami (7-5) vs. Notre Dame (7-5)
WHEN: Dec. 31, 2 p.m.
WHERE: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist will do play-by-play, with Gary Danielson as the analyst).
THE LINE: Miami by 3.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Miami 5-4, Notre Dame 4-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Miami 23rd, Notre Dame 1st.
BCS RANKINGS: Neither team is ranked.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the SEC.
COACHES: Miami - Jeff Stoutland (0-0 in bowls); Notre Dame - Brian Kelly (2-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Nostalgia isn't the only reason to watch. This game features two of the nation's best receivers (Miami's Leonard Hankerson and Notre Dame's Michael Floyd) plus two of the nation's top linebackers (Miami's Sean Spence and Notre Dame's Manti Te'o). The matchup between Floyd and Miami CB Brandon Harris is one we could be seeing for many Sundays to come.
KEY STATS: Notre Dame freshman QB Tommy Rees has thrown eight interceptions -- seven of them in the past four games -- which should whet the appetite of a Miami team that ranks second nationally in pass efficiency defense. Then again, UM quarterbacks have thrown 23 picks.
"It's one of those Ali vs. Frazier, that type of thing," said Miami linebacker coach Micheal Barrow, who played for the Hurricanes from 1989-92. "It's one of those old video games where you match up the two classics. Based on everything that's happened, it's refreshing to play somebody like that. It's a lot of history there."

Miami and Notre Dame faced each other every season but one from 1971-90, and their series developed into the nation's most intense rivalry for a brief period in the late 1980s.

The rivalry started to get truly heated in 1985, when Miami embarrassed Notre Dame 58-7 in the final game of Irish coach Gerry Faust's tenure. Notre Dame earned its revenge during its 1988 national championship season with a 31-30 victory that ended the Hurricanes' 36-game regular-season win streak. One year later, Miami got payback with a 27-10 victory that ended Notre Dame's 23-game win streak and sparked its own national title run.

This series didn't produce many thrilling finishes aside from the 1988 game. Of the last seven meetings between the two teams, that 31-30 classic was the only game decided by fewer than seven points.

But the rivalry remains memorable because it featured white-hot intensity -- Notre Dame fans hyped the 1988 game by wearing "Catholics vs. Convicts" T-shirts -- along with some of the greatest players and teams of that era. The schools had a combined 30 players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft from 1988-91.

"The rivalry means a lot," current Notre Dame linebacker Brian Smith told reporters. "I was talking to Chris Zorich [a 1989 Lombardi Award winner for Notre Dame] a while back, and he was telling the stories from when he played Miami, Coach [Lou] Holtz's speeches in the locker room and how much pride they took in playing and beating Miami. That right there let me know how serious it was."

The stakes won't be nearly as high in the Sun Bowl, as both teams endured up-and-down seasons that left them well out of BCS contention. Notre Dame lost five of its first nine games before closing the regular season by winning three in a row. Miami fired coach Randy Shannon after closing the regular season on a two-game skid that included a 23-20 overtime loss to USF at a half-empty Sun Life Stadium.

But memories of those matchups from the 1980s have made this one of the postseason's most intriguing non-BCS games. While other bowls across the country have struggled to get fans in the stands, this game sold out almost instantly.

The rivalry is being renewed a couple of years ahead of schedule. Even before the Sun Bowl pairing was announced, the Irish and Hurricanes had agreed to square off in 2012 at Soldier Field in Chicago before kicking off a home-and-home series in 2016 at Notre Dame.

"Notre Dame-Miami is a matchup that I think has got a lot of people's interest," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "You might not think with two 7-5 football teams it would get much interest, but certainly this matchup brings back some of the memories of the great games that were played. We hope this is a precursor to the games that we're going to play beginning in 2012."

The mission for both teams is to make sure the rivalry still matters in 2012. The 1988 and '89 showdowns remain memorable to fans of both teams because the winner went on to capture the national title. The Sun Bowl is garnering plenty of attention mainly for the nostalgia factor.

Notre Dame hasn't been a serious national title contender since 1993 and has gone a combined 23-26 over the past four seasons. Miami won a national title in 2001 and nearly won it again the following year, but the Hurricanes haven't even won a conference championship since joining the ACC in 2004.

The Irish began their latest rebuilding project a year ago with the hiring of Kelly, who had led Cincinnati to back-to-back Big East championships that included a perfect regular-season record in 2009. Notre Dame suffered numerous injuries and struggled to adapt to Kelly's spread offense early on, but the Irish established some momentum late in the season. Even if star wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph enter the NFL draft, the Irish have a decent shot to open the 2011 season in the national rankings.

"They've got some confidence," Kelly said of his players. "I'm not saying they've got a walk about them that's an air of invincibility -- that's certainly not what I'm referring to -- but they've got some confidence. They're going to maintain that confidence throughout the bowl season and into 2011."

Now it's Miami's turn to start over. When the Hurricanes failed to deliver on their ACC title hopes, they replaced Shannon with Al Golden, who most recently turned around Temple's program. After going 1-22 in the two years before Golden's arrival, Temple went 17-8 in his final two seasons. In 2009, Golden -- a former Penn State linebacker -- led Temple to its first bowl appearance in 30 years.

Golden won't coach in the Sun Bowl -- offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland instead will serve as the Hurricanes' interim coach -- but he already has discussed his big plans for Miami's future.

"There's a tradition here of winning championships," Golden said. "There is no other standard. That is the only standard by which we'll be measured."

Neither program has come close to meeting that standard lately, but that hasn't stopped this game from attracting more attention than the typical Sun Bowl. After all, it's Miami-Notre Dame. That still means something, even to people who aren't old enough to remember the 1980s.

"I never thought I was going to play them," Miami senior cornerback Ryan Hill said. "Midway through the season, I saw we had a contract to play them in 2012. Now I play them on my way out. I can't think of any better way to go out, put this program where it needs to be and leave a lasting impression for the young guys for next season."

Gary Ferman of CaneSport.com and Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com contributed to this report.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Miami rush offense vs. Notre Dame rush defense: Miami has as many talented running backs as just about any team in the nation. Damien Berry and Lamar Miller have combined for nearly 1,500 yards to help the Hurricanes average nearly five yards per carry. Miller is a major breakaway threat, and Mike James has run for 384 yards on just 66 carries. Miami also has the senior leadership of Graig Cooper, who led the team in rushing three consecutive seasons before injury problems limited him to 35 carries this fall. Notre Dame's run defense was gashed repeatedly by Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Navy's option attack earlier this year, but the Irish have come a long way since then. Edge: Miami.

Miami pass offense vs. Notre Dame pass defense: Miami interim coach Jeff Stoutland hasn't indicated whether junior Jacory Harris or freshman Stephen Morris will start the Sun Bowl. After Harris sustained a concussion, Morris started the Hurricanes' last four games, though Harris finished an overtime loss to USF that closed the regular season. Both quarterbacks have produced plenty of big plays -- for their own teams and the opponents. Harris and Morris -- who hurt his ankle at Tuesday's practice -- have combined to throw 19 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. Notre Dame ranks 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only nine touchdown passes all season. Edge: Notre Dame.

Notre Dame rush offense vs. Miami rush defense: Notre Dame won its regular-season finale by running the ball down USC's throat in its final possession, but those kinds of drives have been few and far between. The Irish rank just 96th nationally at 120.8 rushing yards per game. A midseason hip injury to Armando Allen has forced the Irish to rely on Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes to carry the rushing attack. Wood leads Notre Dame with 522 rushing yards, while Hughes' physical style made the difference in the USC game. Miami has been susceptible against the run, allowing 4.1 yards per carry and 170.8 rushing yards per game. Edge: Miami.

Notre Dame pass offense vs. Miami pass defense: Freshman QB Tommy Rees has won each of his three starts since replacing an injured Dayne Crist, but he's coming off a three-interception performance against USC and hasn't faced a pass defense of Miami's caliber. Miami is second nationally in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only seven touchdown passes. Notre Dame's line must give Rees time to throw. Miami leads the nation in tackles for loss (8.58 per game) and ranks sixth in sacks (3.08). Edge: Miami.

Miami special teams vs. Notre Dame special teams: Miami K/P Matt Bosher has put together an outstanding career, but he has struggled as a kicker in his senior season. Bosher has gone 12-of-16 on field-goal attempts -- including just 1-of-3 from at least 40 yards out -- and has missed three PATs. Bosher has done much better as a punter, averaging 44.3 yards per attempt to help Miami rank 18th in net punting. Notre Dame's David Ruffer was a Lou Groza Award finalist who has made all 15 of his field-goal attempts, though he did miss three extra points (two were blocked). Ben Turk averages 38.2 yards per punt for Notre Dame, which ranks 69th in net punting. Neither team returns punts or kickoffs effectively. Edge: Notre Dame.

Miami coaches vs. Notre Dame coaches: Notre Dame heads into this game with a much more stable coaching situation. Miami fired Randy Shannon at the end of the regular season and replaced him with former Temple coach Al Golden. Stoutland, who worked as an offensive line coach under Shannon, will serve as Miami's interim coach for this game before once again returning to his customary position as an offensive line coach on Golden's staff. Notre Dame has endured plenty of ups and downs in Brian Kelly's first year on the job, but the Irish established some momentum by closing the regular season with a three-game winning streak. Edge: Notre Dame.

X-factor: Both teams have struggled to take care of the ball at times and have committed more turnovers than they've forced. The winner of the turnover battle likely wins the game.

Miami will win if: The Hurricanes will win if they build an early lead with their rushing attack and put the game on Rees' shoulders. The Hurricanes also must avoid letting their coaching change result in distractions. And, of course, they must stop throwing interceptions in critical situations.

Notre Dame will win if: The Irish have a great shot if their defense continues playing the way it performed in the latter stages of the regular season. But that defense faces a major test against Miami's rushing attack.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Miami 27, Notre Dame 24
Tom Dienhart: Miami 29, Notre Dame 17
David Fox: Notre Dame 27, Miami 21
Mike Huguenin: Miami 27, Notre Dame 21
Steve Megargee: Notre Dame 24, Miami 21

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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