Notre Dame-Miami Preview
When Notre Dame and Miami finished a series of high-profile matchups between perennial national title contenders in 1990, neither school could have figured the next meeting would take 20 years to happen -- and would ultimately occur on a stage as small as the Sun Bowl.
These struggling programs will be unsatisfied to finish the year in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 31, a fact the Hurricanes made especially clear when they fired coach Randy Shannon last month, leaving Jeff Stoutland to fill in on an interim basis against the Fighting Irish.
"Nobody has their eyes set on the Sun Bowl when you start the season. Nobody does," first-year Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "But you are playing Miami in a bowl game, it sold out in 24 hours, it's a great matchup that goes back so many years."
Kelly's matchup with Stoutland won't quite have the cachet of the showdowns between Jimmy Johnson's Miami teams and Lou Holtz's Irish in the late 1980s. Notre Dame hired Holtz after Johnson and Miami ended coach Gerry Faust's tenure with a 58-7 rout in 1985.
The teams split four more meetings between 1987-90, including the Hurricanes' 24-0 win en route to the 1987 national championship. Notre Dame's 31-30 victory the next year snapped Miami's 36-game regular-season winning streak and helped the Irish claim their most recent NCAA title.
Their last clash was a 29-20 Irish win Oct. 20, 1990, but Stoutland said that despite the 20-year hiatus -- and each team's 7-5 record -- the rivalry still carries extra significance.
"If I wasn't involved in this game, this game, Miami versus Notre Dame, would be a game I would definitely watch," Stoutland said.
Stoutland, who had triple-bypass surgery in May before his fourth season as Miami's offensive line coach, will serve a one-game stint as head coach.
Shannon was fired Nov. 27 after a 23-20 overtime loss to South Florida. He went 28-22 in four seasons and was unable to lead the Hurricanes to an ACC title game or a bowl win.
Miami announced Dec. 12 that it would hire Al Golden, who engineered an impressive turnaround of Temple's program.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he'll be the head coach at the University of Miami long-term," athletic director Kirby Hocutt said. "Al Golden is very loyal and he wants to be at the University of Miami. He wants to build this program back to the pinnacle of college football."
Notre Dame, 23-26 since the start of 2007, was trying to do the same when it fired Charlie Weis last year, but the results didn't improve much during Kelly's first season, which included a 1-3 start.
Even worse, there was the tragic death of student videographer Declan Sullivan in late October when a tower fell in high winds during practice, then allegations last month that a Notre Dame player sexually assaulted a St. Mary's College student, who later died of a drug overdose.
The Irish also lost quarterback Dayne Crist (knee), running back Armando Allen (hip) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (hamstring) to season-ending injuries, but freshman QB Tommy Rees led them to a three-game winning streak to close the regular season -- including a 28-3 win over then-No. 15 Utah and a 20-16 victory at rival Southern California.
Notre Dame's defense, led by linebacker Manti Te'o, has held opponents to 233.3 yards per game during the winning streak after they averaged 393.1 before that.
"Our kids never blinked," Kelly said. "They kept playing hard. They kept competing. That's why we are where we are."
Miami -- ranked 13th in the preseason -- wasn't nearly as happy to finish with back-to-back home losses, including 31-17 to then-No. 14 Virginia Tech on Nov. 20.
It's unclear how the Hurricanes will respond to the firing of Shannon, which surprised some of the players.
"I'm very disappointed," junior quarterback Jacory Harris said. "Coach Shannon is like my father figure."
Harris returned against South Florida after missing three games due to a concussion, replacing Stephen Morris in the third quarter, but he threw a costly interception late in regulation. He has 13 touchdowns and five INTs while leading Miami to five wins, but one TD and seven picks in four losses.
It's unclear whether Harris or Morris will start against Notre Dame, but either will surely be looking for Leonard Hankerson, who broke Michael Irvin's school record with 12 touchdown receptions this season. Miami also has plenty of talent on a defense that ranks second nationally against the pass and eighth with 37 sacks.
"We're a better team than our record is," Stoutland said. "I know that. We all know that. We have great kids here."
Notre Dame has a 15-7-1 lead in the series, which has three more games scheduled -- the next one at Soldier Field in 2012. But Irish nose guard Ian Williams, who expects to return from a knee injury, downplayed the rivalry's significance for the players.
"I don't think it will matter at all. We're going to be excited to play whoever, wherever we went," Williams said. "I think the exciting part is ... more for the fans because it's a historic rivalry."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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