by John Vannie
Kyle Brindza kicked five field goals and the Notre Dame defense recorded a season-high four interceptions as the Irish defeated Rutgers by 29-16 in the Pinstripe Bowl. The game was a microcosm of the entire season in terms of offensive problems in the red zone and uninspired play against an outmanned opponent. The teams were tied 13-13 at the half, and the Irish were ahead by only 19-16 until Tarean Folston scored with 3:38 left in the game. Brindza added a 49-yard field goal moments later after an interception by Dan Fox for the final margin. Notre Dame ends the season at 9-4.
The Irish looked strong initially with an opening march to the Rutgers eight yard line. After a four yard run, Tommey Rees threw two straight incompletions and Brindza came on to boot a short three pointer. After the Knights quickly went three and out, T.J. Jones fumbled a line drive punt to set up a tying chip shot by Rutgers’ Kyle Federico.
Jones immediately atoned for his miscue with a pass reception into scoring territory and an eight yard touchdown run on a jet sweep. Any notion that Rutgers would fold this early in the afternoon was promptly dispelled when quarterback Chas Dodd responded with two long passes to Brandon Coleman, the second of which beat Bennett Jackson in the corner of the end zone for a 10-10 tie.
As the game moved to the second quarter, Notre Dame had an opportunity when KeiVarae Russell picked off a Dodd pass at the Scarlet Knight 22. The offense could not move forward, however, and Brindza came through again from 38 yards to put the Irish ahead 13-10. Rutgers refused to take the hint and Federico soon kicked another tying field goal midway through the period.
Rees brought his team back into scoring territory, but once again the drive bogged down as three consecutive passes hit the ground. Brindza fell short on a 44-yarder into the wind for his only recorded miss of the day, and the contest remained tied. Notre Dame fans grew restless during the next series when it appeared the Knights were poised to take the lead before halftime. When Justin Goodwin attempted a halfback pass deep in Irish territory, Russell cut in front of the receiver to grab his second interception and end the threat.
Notre Dame dominated in the third quarter, but managed only two more Brindza field goals for a 19-13 lead while the Irish defense shut down Rutgers. The last real chance for the Knights came early in the fourth quarter when Janarion Grant returned a kickoff across midfield against the horrifically porous Notre Dame coverage unit. The drive died quietly after a penalty and a sack by Notre Dame, but not before Federico had closed the gap to 19-16 with nine minutes left.
The Irish then put an end to the drama with a 79-yard scoring drive featuring a 23-yard reception by Troy Niklas and efficient runs by Folston and Cam McDaniel. Folston finished the drive from three yards out, and the game was essentially over.
Although Rutgers was able to hang around most of the day, Notre Dame dominated by outgaining the Knights 494-237, including a 175-80 rushing advantage, and maintaining possession for nearly 39 minutes. Rees threw 47 times for 319 yards on 27 completions. He did not have a touchdown pass but more importantly he committed no turnovers. Dodd was 10 for 28 and threw three of his team’s four interceptions against one touchdown.
Let’s take a look at the answers to the pregame questions:
Which team will take the pressure off its quarterback with a productive running game? This was no contest as Rees received the benefit of a nice one-two punch by Folston and McDaniel.
Can the Irish set the tone from the opening possession with a touchdown drive? The opening drive looked much like the rest of the season, as the red zone became the dead zone for the Irish.
Will Cooks and Elston be able to generate turnovers from Notre Dame’s defense? The pass rush was not very productive but the Irish back seven came to life with four very critical picks.
Can Shembo and Tuitt get to the quarterback? There were a couple of close encounters but real pressure was lacking for the most part. Dodd also scrambled effectively, particularly in the first half.
Will Rees protect the ball and leave Irish fans with a positive impression? Tommy misfired several times, but at least they all hit the ground.
Can the Rutgers return men torch the sluggish Notre Dame coverage teams? Yes, Grant did a good job of embarrassing the Irish. Coverage by special teams remains a grave concern as the Kelly era enters its fifth year.
How many times will Jack Swarbrick extol the virtues of a Jumbotron? None, but the Yankee Stadium grass gave him plenty of ammunition for field turf.
Which NFL team will Kelly be talking to on his headset in the fourth quarter? It had to be the Redskins. We all know that Daniel Snyder is a little bit eccentric, right?
At the end of the day, Kelly termed the 2013 season a good one that could have been great. Looking back, the best wins came against Michigan State (its only loss this year) USC and Arizona State, while mind-numbing losses to Michigan and Pittsburgh and a narrow escape against Navy at home were tough to swallow. Notre Dame fans will now hope that Everett Golson can come back and inject life into an offense that will feature excellent skill position talent and a younger but imposing offensive line. Defensively, there will be more questions and holes to fill throughout the lineup, and relatively inexperienced players will have to come of age very quickly. Although special teams remain a sore subject, the Irish will still have Brindza to call upon whenever things go wrong.