A day after watching Cincinnati, Miami and Michigan all end their season in ugly, embarrassing fashion, Notre Dame’s lethargic 29-16 victory over Rutgers doesn’t look so bad. It wasn’t always the prettiest football, and the Irish left a lot of points on the board, but in the end Notre Dame went home happy and ended the season a respectable 9-4.
” A good year, but we want more,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “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.”
We’ll going to spend this week looking back at the Irish season. But before we shift our focus, let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s Pinstripe Bowl victory.
Lots of Plays. The Irish set a season high in plays and first downs against Rutgers, getting 90 plays off and 31 first downs. The previous high for plays this season was 75, so the Irish making a 20 percent improvement is pretty significant.
After the game, Brian Kelly talked about the decision to run most of the offense out of the spread, crediting Rees for being able to handle the change, considering he hadn’t run the system since 2011.
“He hasn’t run this offense since two years ago,” Kelly said. We were in spread virtually the whole game. He’s so smart. You can go in and run a system with him.
“He just has the ability to pick up all the things that we can do offensively. Today was case and point where we were able to do some things that we haven’t done in a couple years and it looked like it was pretty easy for him.”
Getting the offense to move at a faster pace was something Irish fans were clamoring for all season. With the exception of a few sequences against USC, the Irish rarely did it. While they didn’t cash in on the plays and yards they racked up, it’s a step in the right direction.
Zack Martin. You’ve got to hand it to Martin for keeping the run game moving and Rees protected. The senior put on quite a display during his final game with the Irish, taking home the bowl’s MVP trophy for leading the Irish offense.
After the game, Kelly heaped heavy praise on Martin, calling him his the best lineman he’s ever coached, impressive considering Joe Staley from Central Michigan went in the first round to the 49ers in 2007. But Kelly talked about Martin’s ability to make the linemen around him better.
“I call it the Larry Bird effect. An offensive lineman can make others better around him,” Kelly said. “He does that. He’s made that offensive line. Now, Harry Hiestand is an outstanding offensive line coach, but Zack Martin needs to have some of that credit placed on him as well, because those linemen play so well because of his leadership. He’s an outstanding and a unique player.”
Martin’s MVP trophy for his performance was the rare time an offensive lineman gets credit in a bowl game. How rare? Consider the last time an offensive lineman won an MVP at a bowl was in 1959, when Penn State’s Jay Huffman won it at the Liberty Bowl. Bear Bryant was coaching against the Nittany Lions in his first bowl game.
Troy Niklas. After not being featured as much the past few weeks, Troy Niklas put together a very nice performance against the Rutgers defense, catching four balls for 76 yards. Niklas was a big play weapon down the field and did a nice job blocking at the point of attack as well. (Even if one block went a little overtime and cost the Irish 15 yards.)
Jesse Palmer raised a few eyebrows when he said during the broadcast that Niklas received a second round draft grade, the same as Tuitt, somewhat surprising considering Troy’s underwhelming body of work. But one look at his size, strength and athleticism and you get the picture on why he makes professional teams salivate.
Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson caught up with Niklas ($) after the game to talk about the decision Niklas suddenly has to make.
“Coach was like, ‘Well, there’s really not a decision to be made. We think you have first round potential, so you for sure should come back. It’s not even a decision,'” Niklas told Sampson.
Niklas’ draft grade was anywhere from the second round to the fourth, so I tend to side with Kelly on what Niklas should do. But the Irish’s elite tight end placement in the NFL just keeps on rolling.
The Irish Running Game. Both Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston did a nice job on the ground against a Rutgers defense that’s statistically stingy. While the running game was struggling in the first half, the Irish pounded it when it counted, and both backs did a nice job.
Kyle Brindza. The junior kicker made five field goals, tying the NCAA record for most in a bowl game. After missing a 44-yarder into a stiff breeze, Brindza made another clutch fourth quarter kick that extended the Irish lead.
“Kyle Brindza, when we need a kick, he drills one late in the game,” Kelly said. “He is so good in the fourth quarter, regardless of what the distance is. You’ve got to put that guy in, he’s the best kicker. I’ve got to put him on the field, and he goes and kicks the field goal regardless of the conditions.”
Stephon Tuitt. If this is it for the big fella, he had a nice performance. Tuitt’s 1.5 sacks push him into a tie for third place on the career sack list at Notre Dame, even with Victor Abimiri’s 21.5.
I’ve got no new inside information, but I still think Tuitt makes the decision to come back. There are just too many bad plays on tape for the junior this season, who could become one of the dominant players in college football next year… and earn his college degree.
KeiVarae Russell. Great day in coverage for the sophomore cornerback. His three pass breakups were very impressive.
Turnovers and Sacks. Notre Dame hadn’t picked off four passes in a game since Denard Robinson and the Wolverines threw five last year. And the four sacks were a nice effort as well.
The Future. It’s hard not to see how explosive this offense could be next year. Kelly gave a hint at his expectations heading into next season after the game.
“We’d like our offense to have a little bit more multi-dimensional,” Kelly said. “We had five yards rushing from the quarterback who ran 90 plays. If we have a quarterback next year that has the ability to run the ball, we will be difficult to defend.”
(Here’s a hint: Everett Golson can run.)
Special Teams Units. Outside of Brindza, the special teams were awful. You can blame the injuries, but there’s no good excuse for some terrible cover teams, and expect that to be addressed this offseason.
Kelly had to joke about the coverage, complimenting the sky kick the Irish used late to finally slow down the Rutgers return game.
It’s a little simplistic to put this all on Scott Booker, the young assistant that took over special teams duties to go along with coaching tight ends. But perhaps Kelly will turn this unit over to Mike Elston, who could add a coordinator title back to his business card as a reward for staying in South Bend.
Red Zone. The good news? Notre Dame scored seven times. The bad news? Five of those scores were field goals. That helps explain why the Irish had to sweat out a game that shouldn’t have been close. Red zone offense has been the one lagging piece of the puzzle for Brian Kelly in South Bend, and Tommy Rees’ limitations as a runner go a long way towards pinpointing some of the problems.
But you also can’t drop three touchdown passes. Execution seemed to be the biggest thing that bothered Kelly after the game.
“Out red zone offense today was simply catching the football,” Kelly said. “We had great looks, exactly what we wanted. We ran a boot, came out clean, overthrew him. We actually came out with the next play and Troy Niklas fell down. Had another opportunity and didn’t get it to TJ. So I’m really happy with what we did today in the red zone. We just didn’t execute. We’ve got to throw it and catch it down there.”
Again, a running quarterback will be the biggest addition in the red zone, especially considering Golson won’t be seeing things for the first time.
Field Position. How ugly were things? Rutgers had a +14 differential on starting field position, a monster number that’s not usually talked about. According to Bill Connelly of SBNation, teams win 96.9 percent of the time when you’re starting field position is at least +16.
Rutgers wasn’t quite at the magic number, but it was close.
The Atkinson Situation. The Irish were shorthanded at running back after George Atkinson and Jalen Brown were suspended for the bowl game for violating a team rule. Various reports mention that both George and twin brother Josh took to Twitter to protest the ruling, another violation of team rules.
Entering their senior seasons, it doesn’t appear that either Atkinson brother will become a breakout player as many hoped. But it’s a situation worth monitoring how this all shakes out, with Kelly saying he hasn’t decided whether George’s suspension will effect his future with the team.
The Field Conditions. Come on, Yankees! You had us begging for Notre Dame’s turf!
Chris Fowler’s Choke. Literally. ESPN announcer Chris Fowler needing rescuing at halftime after he started to choke on a chicken sandwich. Luckily his partner in the booth, Jesse Palmer, gave Fowler the Heimlich Maneuver and dislodged the sandwich.
Impressive work by Palmer. Fowler is one of college football’s treasures and a very ugly situation is now something we can laugh about.