All season, the strength of Notre Dame's offense has been an offensive line that was probably one of the best in all of college football. In Saturday's New Era Pinstripe Bowl, they saved their best performance for last.
Running backs Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel combined to rush for 153 yards and a touchdown behind the strong Irish offensive line as Notre Dame defeated Rutgers 29-16 in an ugly New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
The Irish started the first half with an offensive drive that stalled in the red zone and led to a field goal. The Irish would then trade points with a Rutgers squad that many expected the Irish to beat by a couple scores. Rutgers QB Chas Dodd was able to hit WR Brandon Coleman for a 51-yard pass that would result in points for the Scarlet Knights squad.
Tommy Rees (27-47 for 319 yards) then moved the Irish downfield, ending with a TJ Jones touchdown run. Jones was all over the field today, catching 5 balls for 66 yards and rushing for 16 yards on 4 carries to help put the Irish in the lead.
But the Irish defense was unable to really step up in the first half, allowing Chas Dodd to sustain drives with his legs and the Notre Dame kick coverage unit continuously allowed Rutgers to benefit from good field position all day.
Both teams really struggled to gain their footing on a slick Yankee Stadium field. The Yankees had laid down new sod all across the field in preparation for the contest, but there were clearly issues as everyone from the quarterbacks, to the receivers, to the kickers to the referees were slipping on the surface.
After going into the half tied at 13, the Irish came out firing on all cylinders in the 2nd half, forcing Rutgers into turnovers and getting an advantage in the running game that was nonexistent in the 1st half. Freshman RB Tarean Folston, starting in place of suspended RB George Atkinson III, ran for 73 yards on 17 carries and Cam McDaniel added 80 yards on 17 carries. The two backs were key in an offensive scoring drive with a Folston TD run that would ice the game for Notre Dame.
Defensively, the Irish front got angry in the 3rd and 4th quarter. Stephon Tuitt responded to his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the first half with a tenacious second half, sacking Chas Dodd twice and disrupting multiple plays for Rutgers. Kona Schwenke and Sheldon Day (finally healthy!) also added sacks on Dodd.
As for those turnovers, while TJ Jones coughed up a punt return, four Irish defenders (Dan Fox, Kendall Moore, Austin Collinsworth and KeiVarae Russell) all grabbed interceptions that helped stop Rutgers drives and seal the game.
Some observations below:
The Irish were the better team, but it didn't show until the 2nd half: Admit it. You weren't that enthralled about Notre Dame playing at noon in a pre-New Years bowl game in the not-so-tropical confines of New York City. It's ok. Neither were the Irish players it looked like. Both sides of the ball looked robotic and undisciplined in the first half with uncharacteristic penalties and mistakes throughout the first two quarters. Brian Kelly must've said something at half, because the Irish came out swinging in the 2nd half. After averaging less than three yards per carry, the Irish backs (McDaniel and Folston) ended up with over 4 YPC a piece. ESPN picked Zack Martin as the player of the game and I have no problem with that. The offensive line kept Rees upright, gave Folston and McDaniel space and time to run and pushed Rutgers around all 2nd half for the victory.
Red Zone Efficiency was...not so efficient: Despite the "eye test," the Irish were able to move the ball at will against the much-maligned Rutgers defense. However, the Irish offense settled for field goals on three red zone trips in today's contest. In all three cases, the Irish were unable to covert on 3rd and goal passing plays. While this is no new development to Irish fans, it is certainly disappointing when you consider the talent on the other side of the ball as well as Notre Dame's preparation going into the contest. To put it frankly, the Irish won this game by 13, but with better red zone efficiency, this game would've been over by halftime.
New Playmakers Emerged: Kelly decided to throw some caution into the wind and put touted Freshman Max Redfield as a starting safety in today's contest. I thought he played well. He was in on plays and Rutgers never really tested him, instead trying to attack Bennett Jackson on the wing. In addition, how about a shout out to Chris Brown? The receiver, who only had 10 grabs for 155 yards all season, had a really nice game (5 catches for 54 yards) that bodes well for him in the spring.
The Irish Brought The Field With Them: As bad as the field has looked at Notre Dame Stadium all season, the Yankee Stadium turf was less than stellar. The Yankees put in over 25,000 square feet of new sod, but it looked slick all game. Both Rutgers and Irish players alike struggled to get their footing and the game suffered as a result.