by John Vannie
Notre Dame concludes its 2013 season on Saturday with a matchup against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. The game will be played in Yankee Stadium in New York City starting at noon Eastern time, and ESPN will provide national television coverage. The 8-4 Irish will try to end a disappointing campaign on a high note, while the 6-6 Scarlet Knights qualified for their fourth consecutive bowl by defeating South Florida in their final game. The weather is expected to be moderate for this time of year, with clear skies and temperatures in the 40’s.
Injuries have ended the season for several Notre Dame players, and seniors such as defensive lineman Louis Nix and guard Chris Watt will be in the NFL in 2014. Other outgoing seniors will make their final appearance for the Irish, including Tommy Rees, T.J. Jones, Zack Martin, Prince Shembo, and Bennett Jackson. Junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt, a probable first round NFL draft choice, is almost certainly playing his last game for Notre Dame as well.
Coach Brian Kelly concludes his fourth season at Notre Dame and enters the contest with a 36-15 record, including 1-2 in bowl games. Personnel changes have also impacted Kelly’s 2013 staff, as Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco has already left take over as head coach at UConn. Offensive Coordinator Chuck Martin was hired as head coach at Miami of Ohio. Kelly will fill these slots on an interim-only basis for the Pinstripe bowl while a broader search is conducted for their replacements. Current assistants Mike Elston and Kerry Cooks will lead the defense and Mike Denbrock will take over the offense.
Rutgers is coached by Kyle Flood, who took over two seasons ago when Greg Schiano left for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Flood served as an offensive line assistant at the school since 2005 and was the Assistant Head Coach from 2008-11 before being named to the top job. The Scarlet Knights are 15-10 during the past two seasons and were 4-1 this year before falling into a tailspin that left them at 5-6 with one regular season game remaining. Quarterback Gary Nova had started 23 consecutive games under Flood before being replaced by Chas Dodd, who engineered the victory over South Florida and will start against the Irish.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. RUTGERS’ DEFENSE
Rutgers is ranked fourth nationally in defense against the run, having allowed fewer than 95 yards per game. The Knights did not play a very strong schedule, however, so the Irish should not be afraid to go after them. End Marcus Thompson and tackle Darius Hamilton lead a productive front four. The group is relatively undersized, averaging only 262 pounds per man, but they and a trio of quick linebackers do a good job of flying to the ball.
An emerging star at middle linebacker is redshirt freshman Steve Longa, who lead the team with 111 tackles and was named to the Freshman All-America Team by The Sporting News. Flanking Longa are outside backers Kevin Snyder, the Knights’ second leading tackler, and senior Jamal Merrell. Even with a patchwork offensive line that is missing three starters, Notre Dame should be able to run north and south against this group but may have problems with stretch plays or screen passes to the outside.
The larger problem for Coach Flood has been the secondary, where injuries and other issues have necessitated patchwork lineups every week with predictably negative results. Opponents have thrown for 311 yards per game with 31 touchdowns. Safeties Jeremy Deering and Lorenzo Waters have been the most consistent members of the group, but cornerback has been a disaster since senior Lew Toler went down with a broken arm in October and two other players quit the team. Current starters Gareef Glashen and freshman Anthony Cioffi have struggled mightily and figure to have problems with Notre Dame’s talented receivers.
Rutgers may hold up against the run early while their starters are fresh, but the Irish should not default to another contest in which the entire offensive burden falls on the slender shoulders of Rees. The Knights are playing with house money in this game and will take chances on defense. Notre Dame should expect Rutgers to blitz on passing downs and try to force Rees to throw the ball early, so as to limit the exposure of its secondary. The Irish can counter effectively with a balanced attack that should produce several big plays.
RUTGERS’ OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The change to Dodd at quarterback provided a late season lift to the Knights as Nova had struggled with turnovers and a relatively poor (55%) completion percentage. Dodd has better mobility and is more accurate, especially when he is on the move. Starting wideouts Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt are average, while sophomore tight end Tyler Kroft is the team’s most dependable receiver. Freshman Leonte Carroo has emerged as the deep threat in this offense and has nine touchdown receptions to lead the squad. Kroft is next with four.
Rutgers lost guard Andre Civil to injury earlier this season, so they do not have a senior among the current starting offensive line. Massive left tackle Keith Lumpkin is 6’8” and may be the best of the group. Paul James is the leading rusher despite missing four games, and he makes a difference when he is in the lineup. Justin Goodwin and Savon Huggins are in reserve. Although Louis Nix is not available to the Irish, the Knights are not likely to run especially well against them. Rutgers finished the year ranked 98th in rushing offense after playing a relatively weak schedule.
The emotional level of Notre Dame’s defense will have a significant impact on this game. If veteran players such as Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo are sufficiently motivated, Dodd and the Knights will struggle to keep up with the Irish on the scoreboard. If Notre Dame’s play is uninspired, the game will be closer than it needs to be.
One area to watch is the potential that reserves may play a larger role in this game than at any point during the season. The extra practice sessions can allow certain players such as freshman safety Max Redfield to see meaningful action instead of being limited to special teams duty. Other freshmen who have yet to see the field are unlikely to sacrifice a year of eligibility by appearing in this game, but others such as Redfield are prime candidates for live action.
The Irish special units have been maligned at times this season, but punter/kicker Kyle Brindza has been a stellar performer. Conversely, Rutgers has struggled in this area as kicker Kyle Federico and punter Nick Marsh have been inconsistent. Federico in particular has not been reliable on field goal attempts beyond 30 yards, and two of those were blocked.
An area of concern for Notre Dame has been its relatively poor kick and punt coverage teams, and the Knights have the ability to do some damage in the return game. Janarion Grant returns both punts and kicks for Rutgers, and he has a touchdown in each category. Fellow kick returner Quron Pratt has also brought one back for a score.
Rutgers, like Notre Dame, has been depleted by injuries this season and those losses have shown up on the stat sheet and on the scoreboard. The difference is that the Knights do not have the depth that the Irish have on their roster. They will throw everything they have at Notre Dame in the playbook and with a gambling defense. This formula might produce an interesting first half but the Irish will assert themselves at some point.
The debut of replacement offensive and defensive coordinators should produce some new wrinkles for Notre Dame and motivate the players. Although Kelly may hire permanent replacements from outside his current staff, this game provides an opportunity for Denbrock and Cooks to show what they can do. For Irish fan who wanted a stronger running attack and who grew frustrated at the passive “bend but don’t break” defensive approach, this game will be worth watching just to see what new strategies will be employed.
Here are a few questions that will help determine the outcome:
Which team will take the pressure off its quarterback with a productive running game?
Can the Irish set the tone from the opening possession with a touchdown drive?
Will Cooks and Elston be able to generate turnovers from Notre Dame’s defense?
Can Shembo and Tuitt get to the quarterback?
Will Rees protect the ball and leave Irish fans with a positive impression?
Can the Rutgers return men torch the sluggish Notre Dame coverage teams?
How many times will Jack Swarbrick extol the virtues of a Jumbotron?
Which NFL team will Kelly be talking to on his headset in the fourth quarter?
The Irish have a significant advantage on paper, even with the injuries that have plagued them over the latter half of the season. Of course, we said the same thing prior to the Pittsburgh game, so this contest will have to be won on the field. This bowl is not really what Notre Dame had in mind back in August, so one has to wonder about the motivation level. This concern may be offset by the changes at both coordinator slots that should will make the Irish less predictable and increase interest among the players. Rutgers may be the de facto home team, but New York City really belongs to Notre Dame.
NOTRE DAME 34 RUTGERS 17