EL PASO, Texas — 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."
No. 23 FLORIDA STATE 26, No. 20 SOUTH CAROLINA 17: At Atlanta, EJ Manuel threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to stop a South Carolina rally and lead Florida State over the turnover-plagued Gamecocks.
Chris Thompson ran for 147 yards and a touchdown and Dustin Hopkins kicked four field goals for the No. 23 Seminoles (10-4), who reached 10 wins for the first time since 2003.
Manuel took over for senior quarterback Christian Ponder, who left early in the second quarter with a concussion. South Carolina lost running back Marcus Lattimore when he was hit hard on the Gamecocks' first drive.
No. 25 CENTRAL FLORIDA 10, GEORGIA 6: At Memphis, Tenn., Latavius Murray scored on a 10-yard touchdown run with 9:01 left, and Central Florida held on to cap the best season in school history with the program's first postseason victory.
The Knights (11-3) had never won more than 10 games in a season and had lost their first three bowl games, including their last visit here in 2007. The Conference USA champs made this win even sweeter by knocking off a Southeastern Conference team in the process.
Georgia (6-7) snapped a four-game bowl winning streak with its first loss since the 2006 Sugar Bowl. Worse for the Bulldogs is notching their first losing season since going 5-6 in 1996.
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