One year after playing for the BCS national championship against mighty Alabama, Notre Dame found itself struggling mightily to score a 29-16 victory over a less-than-mediocre Rutgers team Saturday in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
The game was played in front of an announced sellout of 47,122, a record for the fourth-year event.
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Reflecting on a 9-4 season without suspended quarterback Everett Golson, who will return next fall, Irish coach Brian Kelly said: "It was a good year. It could've been a great year. We want more . . . 9-4 is a good year for Notre Dame, but it's not what we sign up for every year."
Although the ending was relatively happy, Notre Dame's performance against the Scarlet Knights (6-7) mirrored its season. The Irish ran up 494 yards on offense, converted 8 of 17 third and fourth downs, picked off four Rutgers passes and had drives of 71, 62, 43, 71, 90 and 79 yards, but they didn't pull away until running back Tarean Folston punched across a 3-yard touchdown run for a 26-16 cushion with 3:38 to play. Until then, it was anybody's game.
Quarterback Tommy Rees, who was 27-for-47 for 319 yards and had no interceptions, moved the Irish easily until they reached the red zone, settling for five field goals in six attempts by Kyle Brindza. Cam McDaniel gained 80 yards on 17 carries and Folston rushed 17 times for 73 yards.
Rutgers, a two-touchdown underdog giving up 311.4 yards passing per game, changed its defensive concept, played less man-to-man defense and sat back and tried to prevent big plays over the top.
"In the red zone, they played a seven-across, bracket look," Rees said. "We didn't make enough plays."
Notre Dame avoided embarrassment only because the Scarlet Knights squandered several golden opportunities with poor execution. They recovered a fumbled punt at the Notre Dame 21 but had to settle for the first of three field goals by Kyle Federico to tie the score at 3. Quarterback Chas Dodd, 10-for-28 for 156 yards with three interceptions, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Coleman to tie the score at 10 in the first quarter, but on third-and-goal at the Irish 1-yard line in the second quarter, he underthrew wide-open fullback Michael Burton.
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood chose to play it safe on fourth down and let Federico kick an 18-yard field goal to tie the score at 13, saying, "I didn't have confidence in that drive that we were going to be able to score, and I thought the three points were more valuable."
Yet with momentum, a first down at the Notre Dame 20 and a chance to take the lead with three minutes left in the first half, Flood put his confidence in Justin Goodwin to try a halfback pass that was intercepted at the 1 by Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
Russell said he wasn't fooled in the least when Dodd handed off to Goodwin. "I used to play running back, and I ran hard," Russell said. "[Goodwin] was jogging and holding the ball in front of him. I glanced at No. 17 [wide receiver Coleman] and saw he was running hard."
Russell's pick was a momentum-killer, and Rutgers also failed to capitalize on kickoff returns of 51 and 44 yards by Janarion Grant, coming away with only a 47-yard field goal by Federico that cut Notre Dame's lead to 19-16 with 8:57 left. That's when the Irish mounted a 79-yard drive for the clinching touchdown by Folston, who carried for 41 yards in the drive.
Left tackle Zack Martin, deservedly named MVP, said of the winning drive, "The whole game, we didn't do a good job finishing. It was nice to pound the ball at the end and seal the victory with a touchdown."Nothing spectacular, but a nice way to end a "good-but-not-great" season.