EL PASO, Texas – Miami has been successful in tormenting quarterbacks and disrupting opponents' offenses.
The Hurricanes had the sixth most sacks in the nation (37) and lead the nation in tackles for loss per game, averaging 8.6.
The Hurricanes are also second in pass efficiency defense (95.9) and have 16 interceptions.
Those numbers made Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's analysis of how the Irish (7-5) can be successful against the Hurricanes (7-5) in the Sun Bowl on Friday pretty simple.
"We have to be able to protect (quarterback Tommy Rees)," Kelly said. "That is absolutely crucial. We can't put this game in a situation where he's got to go out as a freshman and decide the outcome."
Keeping Rees from having to win the game is where Notre Dame's revitalized running game comes into play.
In the Irish's three-game winning streak, the offense became more balanced than it had at any time this season. Notre Dame averaged 143 rushing yards and 164 passing yards in the final three games after averaging 288.6 passing yards and 113.4 rushing yards in the first nine games.
Sophomore Cierre Wood has led the Irish's running game after taking over the starting role when Armando Allen's season ended because of a hip injury. Wood ran for 248 yards in the final three games.
Senior Robert Hughes complemented Wood with 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and Notre Dame makes stopping the run difficult by shifting formations to get the best possible matchups.
"They'll spread you out, and what they do is try to dictate your coverage by being spread out and then they will move some people around and try to get you outmanned in the running game," Miami defensive coordinator John Lovett said. "They do a nice job of that schemewise. They've been able to pop some runs on everybody."
Hughes is a key to the Irish's recent rushing success.
The 5-foot-11, 245-pound Chicago native has become the power running back the Irish needed.
"Robert Hughes, initially as we went through spring ball and summer camp, ran like he was a 172-pounder, always looking for cuts and trying to out-run people around the corner rather than lowering his pads and taking on tacklers and getting the tough yardage that way," Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said.
"Now, he's using his God-given skills and his natural strength and power. He's starting to utilize that, breaking tackles, running guys over and hopefully we'll see the same thing (Friday)."
Hughes said the switch to being a power runner wasn't brought on by the coaching staff, but instead, he was motivated because he had only 17 carries for 90 yards in the first nine games.
"Not playing, I wanted to play. That was the tipping point," Hughes said.