Notre Dame’s 29-16 victory over Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium was significant in that it marked the end of the road for Brian Kelly’s first recruiting class since he took over as head coach for the 2010 season. It culminated a 9-4 season that he said was good but that fell short of the Irish goal of double-digit wins every season.
Sizing up a senior class that includes Pinstripe MVP tackle Zack Martin and quarterback Tommy Rees, who regained the starting job in May after freshman Everett Golson was suspended from school, Kelly listed the accomplishments of a class that went 37-15, including 2-2 in bowls.
“They have been great examples of what student-athletes are at Notre Dame,” Kelly said, “and they certainly have set a high bar: four consuecutive bowl games, played for the National Championship [losing 42-14 to Alabama last season], 21 wins over the last two years. It was a bit emotional to see those guys for the last time in the locker room sing the fight song. But they’ll leave an indelible mark not only with the staff and myself, but with the younger players that we hope will carry with them.”
Kelly praised Rees, who started the last four games of his freshman year and all of his sophomore season before giving way to Golson last season. “He’s going to keep chasing the football dream and play in the East-West Shrine game, and he’ll keep trying to play the game as long as he can,” Kelly said. “But I told him he has a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly anytime.”
The Irish coach also thanked Martin, who played most of the season with three first-time starters on the offensive line and with four first-year starters against Rutgers. “He’s not only the best offensive lineman I’ve ever coached…but very rarely do you have what I call the ‘Larry Bird effect,’ where an offensive lineman can make others better around him. He does that.”
Kelly expressed excitement about getting four returning starters back on the offensive line for next season along with the tight ends, wide receiver Chris Brown, running back Tarean Folston, who scored the clinching TD against Rutgers, and several other good young players. He also was pleased with an offense that ran 90 plays in uptempo style against the Scarlet Knights.
“If we have a quarterback next year that has the ability to run the ball, we’ll be difficult to defend,” Kelly said. “Yeah, we’d like to be that kind of team.”
Kelly didn’t have to remind everyone that Golson has been re-admitted to school and is just the guy to lead the Irish to bigger and better things down the road.