The crescendo of Notre Dame's 2013 season is near, though final validation awaits.
With roughly four weeks to prepare for their matchup with Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, the Fighting Irish will have had ample time to correct any and all mistakes and issues in an attempt to pleasantly ride off into the sunset once the game clock at Yankee Stadium expires on Dec. 28.
However, Notre Dame's fourth bowl game in the past five years also serves as early primer for the Irish's 2014 season.
Thus, fans and media pundits alike will be earnestly awaiting a crisp, productive product on the field in the Bronx in three weeks.
The question begging to be asked is: what exactly needs to be seen from head coach Brian Kelly's squad against Rutgers?
A Consistency in the Running Game
At times during Notre Dame's 2013 campaign, the Irish's offensive coaching staff abandoned the running game as a way to mask quarterback Tommy Rees' immobility, though it seemingly never went as planned.
Looking back to the Irish's 28-21 loss at Pittsburgh is a prime example of that trend.
One week after freshman running back Tarean Folston's career day against Navy—Folston took 18 carries for 140 yards and one score—the Cocoa, Fla., native had just four carries for 13 yards against the Panthers. In fact, the team combined for a pedestrian 24 carries, compared to 39 passing attempts.
That type of offensive imbalance has often haunted the Irish, as they experience success at a wildly consistent rate when a balance is present; during the Kelly era, the Irish are 26-1 when recording at least 30 rushing attempts.
A true test of the coaching staff's philosophy surrounding the rushing attack will arrive when they face Rutgers, which ranks fourth nationally in rushing defense, allowing 94.6 yards per game on the ground.
The Pecking Order at Running Back
Also worth noting at the running back position is the pecking order.
Junior back Cam McDaniel has seemingly developed a firm clamp on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, and will likely carry that distinction into spring ball.
But those listed below him will have the Irish's 15 allotted bowl practices to determine the rotation. George Atkinson III, through inconsistency and a failure to truly develop as the back that the staff had envisioned, has all but played himself out of the rotation.
Should that be the case, Folston shouldn't experience difficulty in pairing with McDaniel for a 1A-1B situation at running back.
But the player who has seemingly drifted into the abyss is Amir Carlisle, a player who looked the part of Notre Dame's No. 1 running back during the first quarter of the season. Whether he remains a consistent part of the discussion at running back remains to be seen.
The following three weeks, as well as the bowl game itself, should clear up these current uncertainties.
A Glimpse of the 2014 Offensive Line
During the course of the current season, the Irish lost starting right guard Christian Lombard to a herniated disc. In his place was freshman Steve Elmer, who joined first-year starters Nick Martin (center) and Ronnie Stanley (right tackle).
The line will receive another injection of youth during the bowl game, as it has been announced that starting left guard Chris Watt will not play due to an ongoing left knee injury that began with a PCL sprain.
While it remains to be seen who Watt's replacement will be, the ensuing result is an early look at the Irish's 2014 offensive line, which will feature current starters Elmer, Martin and Stanley. Luckily for that trio, it'll have the leadership of fifth-year senior left tackle Zack Martin for one final game.
Regardless of the elder Martin's presence along the line, the play of the group will be a direct reflection of what to expect during the 2014 season.
A Strong Finish to QB Tommy Rees' Collegiate Career
Believe it or not, Notre Dame's matchup with Rutgers will be Rees' final game in an Irish uniform.
I've written about the 6-foot-2, 215-pound quarterback countless times throughout his career, and while positivity hasn't always emanated from those pieces, I sincerely hope that trend is bucked on the 28th.
While a strong performance in the bowl game won't alter the perception of Rees' career at Notre Dame, it will, at the least, leave both his supporters and critics with a fond memory that may include a bowl victory that would push the Irish to a 9-4 record on the season.
But for Rees to make that hope a reality, he must avoid the untimely turnovers that have dogged him throughout his career. He'll also need to continue to make the correct calls at the line of scrimmage that have been vital to the Irish offense this season.
Most of all, we need to see Notre Dame earn a victory.
Finishing 8-5 for the third time in four years wouldn't necessarily be crippling to the program, but it wouldn't positively reinforce the program in the short term. And while finishing 9-4 isn't by any means a quantum leap from 8-5, it would be great first step into the offseason for the program.
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