A far-from-perfect first season as Notre Dame coach could not have ended much better for Brian Kelly and his Fighting Irish.
Freshman Tommy Rees passed for 201 yards and two touchdowns to Michael Floyd as Notre Dame beat Miami 33-17 in the Sun Bowl on Friday, making Kelly the first Fighting Irish coach to win a bowl game during his first season.
The Irish started 1-3 under Kelly and consecutive October losses to Navy and Tulsa left them in precarious position to even get bowl eligible. But Notre Dame finished with four straight victories against Utah, Army, Southern California and Miami that should buoy hopes for the future of the program.
"Clearly, we are gaining a lot of confidence," Kelly said. "We've beaten some good football teams late in the year as we've come together and found our identity. It's going to taste a whole lot better in the offseason talking about a win."
After a 20-year break, it was all Irish in the latest installment of a storied rivalry that became known during the 1980s as Catholics versus Convicts.
Notre Dame (8-5) reached the end zone on three of its first four possessions. Rees tossed TD passes of 3 and 34 yards to Floyd and Cierre Wood broke free on a 34-yard scoring run before David Ruffer added field goals from 40, 50 and 19 yards.
"It's not hard when you're throwing the ball to Mike," Rees said. "He's such a great player. I knew that if I threw it anywhere near him he was going to make the catch."
There were tough moments for the Irish on the field and off this season. The week before the Tulsa loss at home, the team's student videographer was killed in an accident at practice.
Against Tulsa, Notre Dame lost quarterback Dayne Crist to a season-ending injury. Rees' interception in the end zone in the final seconds sealed the 28-27 defeat in South Bend, Ind.
Notre Dame, however, recovered down the stretch, then handled Miami (7-6) easily.
"There were some obstacles along the way but I think what showed with four wins to close the season was the progress we made," Ruffer said. "We kind of got a late jump with Coach Kelly coming in, but this last month or two months, we've made tremendous gains."
Notre Dame's 30th bowl appearance was a New Year's Eve fiesta in El Paso, a predominantly Roman Catholic city on the Mexican border that embraced the Irish with huge cheers from the first glimpse of a golden helmet coming from the locker rooms.
"El Paso treated Notre Dame so very well," Kelly said.
The Hurricanes trailed 30-3 going into the fourth quarter, completing a season in which their coach was fired with an ugly loss.
Rees hardly looked like a freshman, completing 15 of 29 attempts without an interception. He struggled in the season-ending victory over USC but his performance against Miami marked the first time a first-year starting quarterback at Notre Dame won a bowl game.
"Those 15 practices from USC to now helped a lot," Rees said. "They took some of those mistakes out."
Floyd had a big day, too, with six catches for 109 yards receiving, and he was close to hauling into to more scores.
"I should have had four. That was all on me," Floyd said, laughing.
The game sold out in 21 hours, the fastest in the Sun Bowl's 77-year history, and the crowd of 54,021 set a bowl attendance record. Many fans wore Notre Dame jackets to ward off the 34-degree weather as a round of overnight snow dusted the Franklin Mountains.
The warm-weather Hurricanes — many wearing head covers under their helmets — struggled much of the afternoon.
"They call it football weather for a reason. You can't make any excuses," Miami center Tyler Horn said.
Miami scored twice in the fourth quarter when Stephen Morris threw a 6-yard TD pass to Leonard Hankerson and a 42-yard scoring play to Tommy Streeter, but it was too late by then. The Hurricanes also had 10 penalties for 106 yards.
"Interceptions and penalties," interim coach Jeff Stoutland said. "I really thought we worked hard and focused on that. It bit us again. It really made the difference in the whole game."
The Canes trailed 27-0 late in the first half and the player with the most catches from a Hurricanes quarterback was Irish safety Harrison Smith, who intercepted three passes. Robert Blanton also had an interception during Miami's turnover binge.
"It was a total defensive effort," Smith said. "When you knock the receivers off and mess up the timing with the quarterback, it really makes it easier for the safeties."
Not everything went perfectly for Notre Dame. Ruffer was wide right a 36-yard try late in the third quarter, his first miss on 24 career attempts. Linebacker Manti Te'o sat out most of the second half with a knee injury but could have played if needed.
"We were not going to risk a major injury," Kelly said.
It was a rough finish to a tough season for the Hurricanes, who saw coach Randy Shannon fired in November. Newly hired coach Al Golden watched from a Sun Bowl suite. He saw a team that needs a lot of work.
Jacory Harris started at quarterback for the Canes after Morris sprained an ankle in practice this week. Harris couldn't get anything going, completing just 4 of 7 with three interceptions. Morris took over the second quarter and finished 22-of-33 for 282 yards passing with two TDs.
"Early on, we weren't all on the same page," Hankerson said. "I don't want to say we weren't focused but we weren't making any plays."