Notre Dame football - Irish find a spark, wear down Rutgers

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK - They were coddled and genuflected to to such a degree in the days leading up to their off-Broadway bowl appearance Saturday it was natural to wonder if all the spoiling by the Pinstripe Bowl brass would spill over into the main event.

Yet when the layers were finally peeled back on 25th-ranked Notre Dame’s 29-16 aesthetically-challenged victory over a seemingly not-ready-for-Big Ten Rutgers team, the prism shifted away from the distorted view that the Irish were playing with all the urgency of someone late for a pedicure to that of a team that found something valuable it could use as a future building block.

“You could see it in our linemen’s eyes,” said running back Cam McDaniel, whose in-your-face running style helped unravel the nation’s No. 4 rush defense in Yankee Stadium.

What you couldn’t see were 16 players in various stages of the flu in pregame, some to the point of needing IVs, some like tight end Troy Niklas who just simply threw up Saturday morning, then got well during the game at Rutgers’ expense.

There was senior TJ Jones, who ended his career Saturday as Notre Dame’s No. 2 all-time leader in receptions, but only because he reinserted himself into the game after suffering a second-degree shoulder sprain in the second quarter that was serious enough that game rights-holder ESPN was led to believe and reported he wouldn’t return.

Instead, his five catches for 66 yards gave him 181 receptions, two more than Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija and leaving only Michael Floyd ahead of him. And he did so perhaps at the expense of knocking himself out of an important NFL audition – the East-West Shrine Game, Jan. 18 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

For Jones, it was more pertinent to set the tone for the toughness Saturday that Irish head football coach Brian Kelly will never likely want to turn the page on.

Not that there wasn’t plenty of those facets turned in by ND (9-4) on a springlike day in which temps were at 45 at kickoff and climbed to 53 by game’s end.

Like two gargantuan kickoff returns by Rutgers’ Janarion Grant, piling onto the rep of ND having the nation’s second-to-worst kick coverage team. There were squandered red zone chances and senior cornerback Bennett Jackson – one of a handful of New York City-area story lines – getting continually exposed.

And there’s the 494-236 command in total yards, 4-1 advantage on turnovers gained and 38:16-21:44 landslide in time of possession that the Irish couldn’t convert into the scoreboard mismatch the previous four matchups with the Scarlet Knights had all evolved into, all the way back to their 1921 meeting at the now razed Polo Grounds which used to neighbor Yankee Stadium.

Yet when Kyle Federico banged home a 47-yard field goal at the 8:57 mark of the fourth quarter, Rutgers (6-7) had pulled within 19-16, and the large red-clad section of sold-out Yankee Stadium (47,122) got louder, brasher and more cowbell-oriented.

Fortunately, for Kelly so did the Irish offense, save the cowbell.

Freshman Tarean Folston (73 yards on 17 carries) and McDaniel (80 yards on 17 carries) pounded Rutgers at its one gleaming statistical strength. The Irish finished with 175 rushing yards –second-most against the Scarlet Knights this season – on 43 carries, three of those yards coming on Folston’s lurch into the end zone with 3:38 left for a 26-16 edge.

Kyle Brindza added his fifth field goal of the day, this one a 49-yarder, sandwiched between two late picks by the Irish defense against Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd. Dodd and running back Justin Goodwin combined for four interceptions, one each landing in the hands of Irish defenders Austin Collinsworth, KeiVarae Russell, Dan Fox and senior linebacker Kendall Moore, his first.

Brindza’s kickoffs and field goals were a strange adventure, even though he only missed one three-pointer that counted (he was given a reprieve on another following a running-into-the-kicker-penalty).

The Pinstripe folks trucked in 2,500 square yards of sod for the game and may want to consider appealing for a refund.

“The field, it was interesting,” Kelly said. “We changed spikes. We had our molded (cleats) on, and we changed to our screw-in (cleats) after our program warm-ups, because we were not able to get any hold on the field.”

Kelly said the field played completely different in Friday’s walkthrough, because the ground was still frozen. When the field thawed, it became slick.

“Didn’t affect the outcome of the game in any fashion,” he said. “We’ve played in worse conditions. But we had some slick spots. But Kyle Brindza when we need a kick, he drills one late in the game. … He goes out and kicks the field goal regardless of the conditions.”

Kelly, too, adjusted his offensive game plan to counter the conditions. McDaniel said the Irish got away from cutback runs in the second half, because cuts were so difficult to execute and instead pounded the ball right at Rutgers, which also had to to with attitude.

“I think it was just everybody kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, let’s just go do this thing,’” McDaniel said. “‘Let’s go win it. Pound it out like we’ve done so many times this year and just make things happen.’”

Quarterback Tommy Rees did just enough of that in a game that kind of encapsulated his career – some bad, more good, unquestioned effort and resolve.

Running Kelly’s retro fast-paced spread offense, which the coach suggested is on its way back for good, Rees slinged the ball a Notre Dame-record 47 times, completing 27 of them for 319 yards. In the process, he climbed to 7,670 career passing yards and skipped past Ron Powlus for No. 3 on the ND all-time list.

He didn’t throw a TD, but he was also interception-free in start No. 31, finishing his career a perfect 12-0 in games in which he didn’t throw a pick, 11-8 in games in which he threw at least one. He also added two planned runs Saturday, the second and third of the season. One went for five yards, his longest jaunt since 2011.

Kelly gave the game ball to the trainers for their work on minimizing the ill-effects of the flu. The Pinstripe Bowl gave left tackle Zack Martin, who played his school-record 52nd career start with four first-year starters.

“I call it the Larry Bird effect,” Kelly said, “where an offensive lineman can make others better around him.”

The thing that heartened Kelly is that Martin wasn’t alone, and not everyone who has the Larry Bird effect is walking out the door with expired eligibility.

“They’ll leave an indelible mark in our relationship here,” Kelly said of a senior group that includes the first class he recruited at ND and the last of the Charlie Weis recruits, “not only on the staff and myself, but the younger players that we hope they’ll carry with them.”

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) throws a pass as lineman Mark Harrell (75) blocks Rutgers' Marcus Thompson (48) during the first half of the Pinstripe Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, at Yankee Stadium in New York. AP Photo/FRANK FRANKLIN