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Notre Dame-Miami Preview: Lots on the Line

November 9, 2017

By John Heisler

If Simon and Garfunkel were still in business, one of their lines this week might have been, “And here’s to you, Pat Terrell and Steve Walsh.”

Or maybe, “Where have you gone, Frank Stams and Cleveland Gary?”

It’s been a bit of a throwback week as media members from near and far have done their best to reprise the emotions and excitement of the Notre Dame-Miami rivalry from the 1980s.

But it hasn’t been easy. It’s been nearly three decades since these two programs played a game with so much at stake.

Irish coach Brian Kelly?

“Let’s see,” he says. “In 1988 (when the unbeaten Irish ended the ‘Canes 36-game regular-season win streak in an epic 31-30 triumph at Notre Dame on a late Terrell deflection of a Miami two-point attempt), I was a graduate assistant at Grand Valley State. Really was more worried about cutting up film and getting my job done than watching what was happening between Notre Dame and Miami.

“Most of our guys, they know the history of the rivalry, certainly. It really doesn’t impact what they do in terms of their preparation.

“These are two programs that have great traditions, that have won national championships. You would think sooner or later they were going to meet again with something on the line. We’re excited that we’re back in that position for our university.”

Miami coach Mark Richt?

He was a graduate assistant for Bobby Bowden at Florida State in that 1988 season.

Their current players? None were born when this series had its most intriguing moments.

After a 1990 regular-season meeting at Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame and Miami didn’t play again for two decades until a Sun Bowl meeting following the 2010 campaign (the Irish won 33-17 to finish Brian Kelly’s first season in South Bend). Ninth-ranked Notre Dame won again 41-3 two years later in a Shamrock Series game in Chicago. Then a year ago in a late October contest at Notre Dame Stadium the Irish prevailed 30-27.

But considering the two teams combined to come in at 6-8 a year ago (Notre Dame 2-5 and coming off consecutive defeats, Miami 4-3 and loser of three straight) compared to 16-1 this time, Kelly didn’t even think there was much to gain from watching tape of that 2016 meeting when both teams were quarterbacked by different signal-callers than in 2017.

“We know a little bit about them (from) last year, and I would say a ‘little bit’ about them because we have a different football team and they are a different football team as well,” Kelly said. “So there’s not a lot of going back on last year. It’s really about both of these teams this year.”

If history means anything Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium, it’s that winning in Miami hasn’t been easy for the Irish. Six of Notre Dame’s seven series defeats have come in Miami (1960-81-83-85-87-89). A Notre Dame football team hasn’t flown home victorious from Miami since the 1977 Irish national championship season (a 48-10 contest).

The Irish fell five times to the Hurricanes in the 1980s at the old Orange Bowl facility-including in 1981 to an 8-2, ninth-rated Miami squad, in ’85 to fourth-rated and 9-1 Miami, in ’87 to a 9-0 and fourth-rated Hurricane unit and then in ’89 to a ‘Cane unit that stood 9-1 and rated seventh.

Meanwhile, the Irish are looking to knock off an unbeaten opponent on the road in the month of November for the first time since 1988 (another national title season for Notre Dame) when they defeated 10-0 and second-rated USC to end the regular season. Beyond that victory at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Notre Dame’s other November road wins versus perfect-record foes came in 1982 at Pittsburgh and 1957 at Oklahoma (plus ties at Michigan State in 1966 and at USC in 1968).

But it’s safe to say Lou Holtz and Jimmy Johnson aren’t coming down out of the stands this time to match wits.

And that means it will be the 2017 versions of the Irish (8-1 and ranked third in the College Football Playoff poll this week) and Hurricanes (8-0 and rated seventh) making their own history Saturday night. The presence of the ABC prime-time crew and the ESPN College GameDay set suggests this meeting means something.

It’s the second time in three years the Irish came into mid-November with a single loss (Notre Dame ended the regular season 10-2 in 2015 and in the Fiesta Bowl that year). It’s the third time in six years the Irish have been part of the playoff conversation at this time of year (in 2012 Notre Dame ended the regular season 12-0 and rated number one).

“It’s exciting,” notes Kelly. “I know our guys are excited about this championship drive that they are on now. This part of the season, obviously in November, all of the teams that are in contention are focused on one game at a time, and it’s single elimination for most teams.”

It’s obvious this is a different Notre Dame team than the one that ended up 4-8 a year ago.

“I think our foundation was in place,” says Kelly. “What we needed to do is make some changes that allowed us to grow again. This was much more about the approach on a day-to-day basis changing and the plan changing from what it was before. Just this business plan was different.”

Kelly says his players understand that the challenge will be on the field Saturday night, not based on the history book.

“They know Miami. They know the history and tradition. They are aware of all those things. But they know that they have to play really well, and they have to play better than they did last week. I think that’s what they know more than anything else.

“I don’t think they spend a whole lot of time thinking about the history and the tradition. There were some great match-ups, and I don’t want to sell those short. But the real focus of this group is that they know they are playing a really, really good football team and they have to play well.”

Notre Dame remains one of the most productive rushing football teams in the nation, with its average of 324.8 yards per game rating fifth nationally. That unit faces a talented Miami defense that leads the nation in tackles for loss (8.8 per game). The Hurricanes rate 12th in scoring defense at 17.6 points allowed per contest, third in team pass efficiency defense (98.33) and fourth in team takeaways (2.6 per game). Notre Dame is 15th in takeaways and fifth in turnover margin.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s rush defense has permitted only four opponent ground scores all season (only Alabama, Wisconsin and Washington have fewer, with three each). Miami has permitted 170.0 rushing yards per week to its foes.

Notre Dame enters with the sixth-best win streak in the country at seven in a row. Miami tops that chart with 13 straight-with the last Hurricane loss coming to Notre Dame in South Bend last Oct. 29.

Looking for another reason for Notre Dame’s improvement? Check the average yards per rush on both sides of the ball-that’s what dominating the line of scrimmage is all about. Last year the Irish averaged 4.5 yards per rush compared to 4.1 by their opponents (plus 0.4 yards). In 2017 Notre Dame averages 7.04 yards per rush (best in the country), while Irish opponents are at 3.76 (plus-3.28). The best differential belongs to unbeaten Alabama at plus-3.56 (6.07 gained against 2.51 allowed).