Notre Dame football - ND can build on victory

Commentary

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK - Soccer fans would have had a heyday.

There was more kicking going on at the Pinstripe Bowl Saturday than some MLS matches.

After all, given the men’s national championship this fall, Notre Dame now hangs its hat on its reputation on the pitch rather than the football field, right?

Eight field goals, five by the Irish, sapped a lot of the drama from Notre Dame’s 29-16 “excuse me” over Rutgers.

Just like always, this is an opportunity to review the positives:

•Notre Dame fans won’t have Tommy Rees to kick around anymore. And, he actually played his final collegiate game sans turnovers.

•A lot of the bad things that happened shouldn’t have lingering effects.

For starters:

•Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson got picked on early and often. For a while, his game started to erode into the type of performance Gary Gray had against Michigan a few years ago. He gave up two long passes and was called for an interference penalty.

However, as bad as Jackson was, sophomore KeiVarae Russell was that good. Russell had an interception, broke up three passes and had two tackles.

“KeiVarae Russell was outstanding today,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “On body... Just how many break-ups did he have where he was in great coverage?”

•Two Irish veterans who know better - defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt and tight end Troy Niklas - were both flagged with unnecessary roughness penalties that could have been costly.

•Twice Rutgers started drives in Notre Dame territory because the Irish kick coverage was that miserable. On one, Rutgers’ Janarion Grant returned a kickoff 51 yards and ran through seven tackles the Irish missed.

Hopefully, sometime between now and next September, Kelly will find 10 guys - walk-ons or whoever - who know how and want to make a tackle.

•Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd wasn’t awful, but he never should have run out of sacks twice for double-digit gains.

It’s all about sealing the deal - on offense and defense.

Tied at halftime and Notre Dame clinging to a three-point lead on the other side of a rousing rendition of “God Bless America” at the end of the third quarter, this had Pittsburgh written all over it. Allow a bad team to hang around long enough, make a mistake, and pay dearly.

Recovering from a loss in this game could have been difficult, if not disastrous.

This time, though, the Irish didn’t make a mistake.

An Irish running game that has lacked consistency and potency all season, kicked in high gear in the second half. Behind Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston, they rolled up 112 yards and a Folston touchdown.

Notre Dame had the ball inside the Rutgers 10-yard line five times and settled for a field goal three times.

Again, that’s all about finishing.

Something has to be seriously inconsistent with an offense that generates 494 yards and only scores two touchdowns.

Notre Dame failed to put an exclamation point on the victory - and the season.

However, paraphrasing the immortal words of Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood: “9-4 is better than 8-5.”

Take the win, make sure everyone keeps their noses to the academic grindstone, and figure out how to avoid situations like Pittsburgh, Michigan and Oklahoma from happening again.

Stanford was a legitimate loss.

It’s bound to be better next season. Turn newly-reprieved quarterback Everett Golson loose to run the offense. Get people healthy and find some guys to play the defensive front seven, and the Irish have an opportunity to be pretty good.

“A good year that could have been a great year,” said Kelly, summing up 2013. “I like the fact that the last couple years we’ve played well at home, except the Oklahoma game (35-21) where we gave them 14 points early on some things we don’t normally do.

“I would say, a couple missed opportunities in some games where we could have easily been a team that’s looking at double-digit wins. That’s where we want to be every year.

“So, a good year, but we want more. It’s not enough for us; 9-4 is a good year for Notre Dame. It’s not what we sign up for every year. We wanted a little bit more out of this year.”

At least there’s hope for the future.

Notre Dame fans can get a kick out of that.

The Irish just have to finish next time.

Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt (7) sacks Rutgers's Chas Dodd (19) during the second half of the Pinstripe Bowl NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, at Yankee Stadium in New York. Notre Dame won the game 29-16. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II