Five things we learned: Notre Dame 29, Rutgers 16

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So many parts of Notre Dame’s 29-16 victory over Rutgers were forgettable. The sloppy turf inside Yankee Stadium, the special teams mistakes and the missed opportunities. But in the end, Brian Kelly’s Irish pulled away from Rutgers, winning a ninth game of the season, putting an appropriately frustrating bow on a difficult season.

At times, Notre Dame looked like a great football team. Moving the ball impressively between the 20s, limiting Rutgers offense to just 236 yards, and forcing turnovers and sacking the quarterback. Yet forced to kick five field goals, the Irish did their best to keep the Scarlet Knights in the game, getting precious little out of their 494 yards.

With the 2013 season in the books, let’s look at the five things we learned during the Irish’s Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers.

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1. No matter how ugly it was, heading into the offseason with nine wins and a bowl victory is better than the alternative. 

There will be no style points awarded for Notre Dame’s victory in Yankee Stadium. But walking away with a 29-16 victory was mandatory, and give credit to the Irish for at least doing that. While Notre Dame didn’t make it easy on themselves, the team gutted out a win by putting together a few clutch drives late, and forcing four turnovers against a Rutgers team that made a habit of giving the ball away.

On a slippery track that made more tackles than any one player, the Irish outside ground game was shut down and players on both sides of the ball were slipping and sliding. But even in a game that played every bit as ugly as any other this season, the Irish took home a victory.

Sending out the seniors in style was important. But so was taking some momentum into next season. With Everett Golson returning for spring practice and a young skill position depth chart taking shape, this offense will have the burden of great expectations. Exactly the type of fuel you’d prefer over the long offseason months.

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2. It wasn’t the going away party the Irish would’ve liked for captains TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson.

Against a suspect passing defense, TJ Jones had the chance to do some damage, possibly pushing his way up the Notre Dame record books with a monster game against the Scarlet Knights. But Jones’ afternoon got started on the wrong foot, when a low punt clanked off his shoulder pads, a killer turnover that gave Rutgers three easy points.

But that was hardly the worst of it for Jones. The senior receiver also got banged up on his eight-yard touchdown run, when he took a nasty hit reaching the football across the goal line. Jones wasn’t the same player after that hit, missing a few plays before coming back into the game.

Jones made five catches for 66 yards, but dropped an easy touchdown pass and struggled to keep his footing on the sloppy Yankee Stadium surface. Incorporated into the game plan as a rusher, receiver and special teams threat, Jones didn’t play his best during the Irish’s 29-16 victory, but he battled through a painful injury to help the Irish win.

The Irish’s defensive captain didn’t fair much better on Saturday. Bennett Jackson had a touch time with Rutgers receiver Brandon Coleman, getting beat for a 51-yarder over the top and a 14-yard touchdown. Jackson also had a 15-yard pass interference penalty, making it a finale to forget for the cornerback playing in front of family and friends.

It wasn’t all bad for Jackson. He made an aggressive play on a short pass that helped Kendall Moore come up with an interception and a nice stop on special teams late in the game. Those are the type of plays that’ll determine whether or not Jackson makes a living playing on Sundays, as the one-time special teams dynamo and former running back/receiver/return man will need to keep his Swiss Army skills sharp to make it in the NFL.

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3. Even though it looks like Kerry Cooks won’t get the defensive coordinator job, his group did a nice job on Saturday afternoon. 

Brian Kelly revealed after the game that he has decided on an outside hire to be his next defensive coordinator. While he wasn’t ready to name Bob Diaco’s replacement, it looks as if it won’t be Kerry Cooks. If this is it for Cooks as the defensive coordinator, he’s got to be happy with his unit’s performance.

The Irish racked up four sacks and also had four interceptions against Rutgers while holding the Scarlet Knights to just 236 yards. Put in tough situations with shoddy special teams play, the Irish limited Rutgers to just 16 points and only three of 12 third down conversions.

The Irish struggled at times defending quarterback Chas Dodd, who surprised with some impressive scrambles and runs. But Rutgers completed just 10 of 28 passes against the Irish, and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. Nice work by a defense still playing well short of full strength.

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4. In the end, Tommy Rees was what we all thought he was. And Saturday he went out a winner. 

It was a hot and cold Saturday for Rees, who completed 27 of 47 passes for the Irish, throwing for 317 yards. Unwilling to give up the ball over the top, Rutgers was content to let Rees pick away at the underneath throws, which Rees did effectively, picking up 20 passing first downs and converting seven of 16 third downs.

But the Irish passing game just wasn’t able to get on track with throws down field, with Will Fuller, Jones and Davaris Daniels all unable to pull in catches that could’ve resulted in touchdowns.

Those kind of misses, especially in the red zone, help explain why the Irish scored just 29 points while gaining 494 yards. And Rees was hardly immune to mistakes, making a few bad decisions as he forced the football down field into coverage. But the Irish won another game when Rees didn’t commit a turnover, holding true on a datapoint that is four years in the making.

Saturday’s game made apparent the limitations the Irish have with Rees running the offense. That Rees’s quarterback sneak and two-yard scramble were just the second and third positive rushing play on the season for the quarterback show you just how difficult it is to run Brian Kelly’s offense without a mobile quarterback. But Kelly had nothing but good things to say about Rees as the veteran quarterback played his final game for the Irish.

“I’m a Tommy Rees fan for life,” Kelly said after the game.

5. With the game on the line, Zack Martin and the offensive line powered the Irish running game to a clinching score. 

With the Irish clinging to a three point lead, Brian Kelly turned to his offensive line to win the game. And for senior Zack Martin, it was one final opportunity to dominate an opponent. With the help of Troy Niklas’s clutch 28-yard catch up the seam, the ground game did the job and Martin earned the game’s MVP trophy.

After holding the Irish to meager gains during the first half, the Irish did damage on the ground after halftime, with Martin leading the way for Notre Dame. Taking the ball with under nine minutes left, the Irish marched 10 plays in over five minutes with Tarean Folston gaining 37 yards on six carries to seal the victory.

The play of the offensive line was a bright spot all season. That a group that lost three starters could continue to protect Rees so well when it mattered is a credit to Harry Hiestand and Martin, who was the binding agent on a line that had to break in four first-year starters.

There will be other offensive tackles taken before Martin in the upcoming NFL Draft, but Kelly was unequivocal in his praise for his four-year left tackle.

“He’s the best offensive lineman I’ve ever coached,” Kelly said.