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And in that corner… The Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Dec 24, 2013, 11:55 AM EST

Kyle Flood AP

The Fighting Irish boarded a Delta 747 for New York on Monday afternoon, set to spend Christmas in the Big Apple before playing Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday. The mood was jovial (if Twitter and Instagram are an indication) as the team took to the skies, a rare game where the Irish are playing for themselves.

While there was griping among fans about a northern destination, New York was an oasis this weekend, with temperatures reaching the 70s. It won’t last until the weekend, but Saturday’s high temperature should be in the low 40s, perfectly fine weather for football.

Now onto the game. Rutgers salvaged a postseason bid with a win in their season finale against USF, bringing Kyle Flood’s squad up the Jersey Turnpike for their highest profile game of the season. To get us a better idea of what awaits the Irish, The Star-Ledger’s Tom Luicci was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

Tom’s been covering college football for as long as I’ve been alive, with 34 years of experience, including 21 seasons as a national college football writer. That means he’s spent a lot of time covering the Irish, attending roughly 60 Notre Dame games between 1979 and 2000. He is New Jersey’s state chairman for the Heisman, a Harris Poll voter, and an instructor of elite Naval Aviators in Miramar (maybe one of these is a fib).

At a really busy time of year, I’m thankful Tom could spare some of his expertise to get us ready for the bowl game. Hope you enjoy.

***

On paper, it’s not hard to see why Rutgers finished the season 6-6. They struggled with turnovers, gave up a ton of big plays, and just didn’t compete against above average teams in the conference. A year after winning nine games, what went wrong?

The short answer is this: The NFL Draft and key injuries. Rutgers had seven players drafted last year — which was more than any Big Ten team. And Rutgers isn’t a program like Ohio State that simply re-loads. It takes a little time to rebuild. Three of those players drafted were from the secondary, two were starting LBs (one was the two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year) and the defense had to be overhauled.

Rutgers was the only team in the country to start two true freshmen corners in the same game this year. Teams took advantage of that, spreading out Rutgers’ defense and schooling the young secondary. Offensively, Paul James was the nation’s No. 2 rusher after four games when he broke his fibula and missed eight weeks and QB Gary Nova never elevated his play, which is why he was benched the final two games. In the secondary, one of the new starting CBs (Ian Thomas) abruptly quit the team and another (Lew Toler) suffered a season-ending broken arm. So the secondary was a mess all year.

What’s the latest with the Scarlet Knights’ QB situation. Will the Irish see senior Chas Dodd or Gary Nova? Where does Rutgers go moving forward at the position?

Dodd will start for the third straight game — after not starting a game before this year since the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State. Nova’s decision-making, turnovers and inability to jumpstart the offense are why he got benched after 23 straight starts. A spark or some change was needed. Going forward there will be a QB competition in the spring. Chris Laviano, a true freshman who is redshirting this year, is expected to give Nova a run for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Blake Ranking could as well.

Rutgers is bowl eligible, but it seems that Kyle Flood struggled to hold onto his job. He fired three coaches on his staff the day after the Pinstripe Bowl announced their selection of the Scarlet Knights. Looking past the bowl game, how does this program look as it enters the Big Ten?

With fewer spread teams in the Big Ten (and a new defensive coordinator to be named) Rutgers should be competitive. I know that sounds strange given how they were beaten up by spread teams this year but this defense is built more for the Big Ten style of play. Offensively, Rutgers returns everyone except WR Brandon Coleman. But Nova may or may not be the starting QB. The offensive line returns intact. TE Tyler Kroft is coming off a breakout year. And WR Leonte Carroo, if he can stay healthy, is an NFL-caliber player. Defensively, Rutgers loses four starters — but the reality is not one had a good year. And there is some promising young defensive talent on the roster. So on paper, this can be a competitive, Iowa-type team.

Flood fired his defensive coordinator Dave Cohen. The unit seems to have given up a ton of points, but they are ranked 4th in the country against the run, though have struggled mightily against the pass. How bad are things on that side of the ball? Or was Cohen fired for the off the field accusations of bullying players?

Cohen was fired because this was the worst pass defense in school history statistically — by a wide margin. And if Notre Dame gains 401 yards it will have allowed more yards than any defense in school history. This defense is good against the run, but the reality is that teams pass on this defense because they can. The secondary is the biggest issue. It’s painfully young. Even the one senior there — free safety Jeremy Deering — played offense his first three years. The front four has not done a good job helping out the secondary by getting enough pressure, either.

What can the Irish expect from the Rutgers offense? One-time Irish running back target Savon Huggins looks buried on the depth chart. Will the Scarlet Knight attack feature a heavy dose of Paul James?

With James healthy, as well as promising true freshman Justin Goodwin, Rutgers will have a run-first offense. Notre Dame appears vulnerable there — at least statistically — and ball control is the best way to keep a wobbly defense off the field. Rutgers is trying to expand its offense with some zone read wrinkles, so we may see more of that. Chas Dodd isn’t a high percentage passer but he does have a knack for making plays and he is a senior. Running the ball, throwing to the tight end, a controlled passing game with a few deep shots. That’s how Rutgers generally tries to approach games — unless (or until) they get out of hand.

The Irish are a pretty resounding favorite heading into the Bronx next week. Do you expect Rutgers to put up a fight and keep things close? Do you think Scarlet Knight fans will try to stake a claim to Yankee Stadium and New York City, or is that just the Yankees marketing department’s dream?

Rutgers is 2-0 in the new Yankee Stadium and I think there’s a general feeling that a good showing — not even a win necessarily — will provide some momentum into the off-season. If Notre Dame gets up by double digits quickly, this could just be another ugly Rutgers loss. But I think there’s far more motivation on Rutgers’ part to be playing Notre Dame than the other way around. But emotion only can carry a team so far. They have to play and play well. And Rutgers will have solid crowd support for the game.

***

For more from Tom, check out his work at the Star-Ledger and give him a follow on Twitter @TomLuicci.

  1. mcirish27 - Dec 24, 2013 at 12:45 PM

    I was really hoping to hear him address Keith’s comment about Savon Huggins. He looked like a surefire RB prospect (as so many do) and I was bummed when he chose Rutgers over the Irish. Any east-coast posters here have any light to shed?

  2. viktory2013 - Dec 24, 2013 at 1:29 PM

    Just hoping ND shows up and actually pays attention Saturday. I understand playing Rutgers in freezing weather is not exactly what most players aspire to at the beginning of the season (sorry east coast guys), but finishing the season with a Pitt type effort would really make for a deplorable off season. Just focus and finish like men: don’t let Rutgers start thinking they might just win this thing in the 2nd quarter.

  3. goirishgo - Dec 24, 2013 at 2:12 PM

    I expect an easy win. Rutgers has some good players (the best of which likely won’t play) but not enough to keep it close. And while Rutgers is right down the road from NYC I believe the crowd will be largely pro-ND. Mid-40s and sunny with a dry track favors the Irish too.

    My son and I will be there to pull them through….go Irish!

  4. nudeman - Dec 24, 2013 at 2:54 PM

    viktory
    Amen brother.
    Nothing was more disturbing this year than all the Xanax efforts. Having said that, aside from Pitt (STILL don’t understand that one) most of those crap-fests took place earlier in the year.

    I’d be surprised if ND doesn’t play well. It will be interesting to see with Martin gone, if they actually commit to the run. Kelly is pass happy and Rees will audible 80% of the time into a pass (potential double coverage notwithstanding), so maybe removing Martin from the equation isn’t enough.

    ND 37
    RU 24

    • papadec - Dec 24, 2013 at 4:22 PM

      nude – I don’t think RU will score that much – or maybe, I just hope they don’t. I see the Irish winning by 17-21 points.

    • viktory2013 - Dec 24, 2013 at 8:16 PM

      Nudeman: that sounds about right. (I hope). If it’s 21-21 going into the 4th quarter, it’s nervous time because that’s when Rees usually starts going numb.

  5. paulhargis53 - Dec 24, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    Rutgers in a laugher. The 1st in a long line of 4 or 5 loss seasons.. AGAIN.

    You heard it hear 1st.

    • notredameirish1980 - Dec 24, 2013 at 5:49 PM

      Came out from under the bridge on Christmas Eve? Ultimately pathetic.

    • mayesdays - Dec 24, 2013 at 5:52 PM

      Actually Harg, we here that all the time from sources like ESPN, Mark May, Satan. Get new material Jack!

      GO IRISH!!

  6. fnc111 - Dec 24, 2013 at 7:33 PM

    Wouldn’t it be great if ND wins by 28 and Paul hargis gets hit by a bus?

  7. paulhargis53 - Dec 25, 2013 at 9:13 AM

    No, I’ve been here everyday dummy. Try taking a look at other articles.

    fnc: Wow, wishing bodily harm or even death on me? If your that upset about a commentter on a sports blog, I suggest you reevaluate your priorities or seek professional help.
    Rutgers 31 ND 13.

    • ndgoldandblue - Dec 26, 2013 at 9:49 AM

      “you’re”, not “your”

  8. ndirish32 - Dec 25, 2013 at 1:51 PM

    I’d like to see the Irish hand half a hundred on Rutgers, while pitching a shutout. 56-0 sounds about right. But realistically, I’m afraid the Knights will come out fired up to play ND, who will maybe be sleepwalking. Probably a score like 10-3 Irish at the half, 24-13 final in a bit of a snoozer. As long as they get the W is all that matters, but some serious style points would be nice.

  9. c4evr - Dec 25, 2013 at 8:02 PM

    I can already hear it, ‘ND was Rutgers’ Super Bowl’…

    Just once I’d like to see a Kelly team show up and administer a beating regardless of who is lined up on the other side of the ball.

  10. ningenito78 - Dec 26, 2013 at 9:48 AM

    @mcirish27 he’s been disappointing for Rutgers fans too. He’s way too indecisive with the ball and seems hesitant to hit a hole with a full head of steam. The anti-Paul James. But he does show flashes, particularly if he gets the ball in space. I don’t know if it was all the injuries early in his career that have made him so hesitant but he hasn’t shown the 5 star potential he came in with. He’s much better in a committee than as a feature guy but he definitely has a role if used properly. As a long time RU season ticket holder that will be there on Saturday I think Rutgers will be able to hang in with ND (cover the 14) but I’m not going to go as far as say won outright. But I wouldn’t be floored if they did seeing as how they have much more motivation here than the Irish do. I also think the crowd will be much more split than people seem to think. Rutgers sold 4000 more tickets than its allotment (another stellar job by the athletic dept) so there’s plenty of interest and it’s very close to home. If I had to pick a score I would say:

    Notre Dame- 31
    Rutgers- 27

    • ndgoldandblue - Dec 26, 2013 at 9:51 AM

      That’s a good, balanced take.

  11. ningenito78 - Dec 26, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    @paulhargis while I love the pro-RU enthusiasm your take is a little absurd. What exactly has Rutgers shown this year that they’re capable of completely dismantling a team with the talent of Notre Dame? On top of it ND has a head coach that’s is quite familiar with the opponent. I’m not going to say RU has no chance of winning. They do. But not in a blow out. They have a defense that’s completely incapable of holding a team down for a blow out. Quite the troll job.

  12. ndirishfan63 - Dec 26, 2013 at 12:23 PM

    The Irish come to play and send the seniors out on a high note.Notre Dame 45 Rutgers 3 GO IRISH!!

  13. mediocrebob - Dec 26, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    The Irish have shown they are 2 teams. Well see which one shows up. I don’t think nd needs to play their best game to beat RU, but if they come out asleep, who’s to say they don’t get blown out? I’ve seen stranger things. If they come out to take care of business, there shouldn’t be an issue.

    34-17 Irish.

  14. runners00 - Dec 27, 2013 at 8:58 AM

    1. People like paulhargis don’t get hit by the proverbial bus. Ever. They dislike the program and always cheer against us. As just about any die-hard ND fan knows, these people are irrelevant and not worth insulting – or even addressing.

    2. This will not be an easy game. Rutgers is not a bad team when they’re healthy and they have their number one RB, a guy who was out for most of the year, but who performed very well early in the season. And they will be supremely motivated – playing at home against a good ND football team.

    3. If we can play the way we are capable of playing, we’ll win by a couple of touchdowns. That’s a big if. The game smells like Pitt to me, though, so I hope that Coach Kelly and the gang recognize this heading to the Stadium.

    4. Focus. Dig deeper. Get outta there with a W.

  15. paulhargis53 - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    runners. I don’t dislike the program, its a majority of the fans I detest.

    Quit bringing me up if I don’t matter.

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