Pinstripe Bowl: Fresh Notre Dame vs. Rutgers Preview
If you're looking for entertainment in the Big Apple prior to the annual New Year's tradition of the ball dropping in Times Square, look no further than the home of the New York Yankees in the Bronx.
It is there that the the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will play the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the fourth annual Pinstripe Bowl.
Notre Dame, which finished with an 8-4 regular-season record, is searching for its first postseason win since it defeated Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl. Meanwhile, Rutgers is seeking its second Pinstripe Bowl victory in three years, after the Scarlet Knights handled Iowa State, 27-13, at Yankee Stadium two years ago.
Interestingly enough, both programs have experienced turbulence in coaching turnover since the conclusion of the regular season.
Three weeks ago, Rutgers second-year head coach Kyle Flood announced the dismissal of three of his assistants—defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, quarterbacks coach Rob Spence and offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski—a move that wasn't a surprise, as the Scarlet Knights limped into the situation of having to win their regular-season finale against South Florida to become bowl eligible.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, while not by his choice, lost both his offensive coordinator (Chuck Martin) and defensive coordinator (Bob Diaco) to head coaching jobs—Miami (Ohio) and Connecticut, respectively.
Thus, the subject of coaching turnover is the most oft-discussed topic preceding the Pinstripe Bowl.
Time: 12:15 p.m. EDT
Place: Yankee Stadium
Radio: Notre Dame IMG Radio Network
Spread: Notre Dame by 14, per VegasInsiders.com.
Notre Dame's Keys to Victory
How fitting it is that it should end this way.
In Notre Dame senior quarterback Tommy Rees' final collegiate game, he'll be the focal point of the Irish's path to victory.
Rutgers ranks fourth nationally in rushing defense, allowing an average of 94.6 yards per game on the ground, meaning the Irish can't simply expect to be able to pack it in and and run the football consistently. Thus, head coach Brian Kelly and interim offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock will likely emphasize the play-action passing game against Rutgers' overly aggressive front.
In fact, that aggressiveness at the line has cost Rutgers big play after big play in the passing game, and the Scarlet Knights rank 103rd nationally in passing efficiency defense.
With this condition at stake plus the Irish's necessity to open up the passing game through play-action, it's highly unlikely the Irish will utilize the no-back set they so often employed throughout the course of the regular season to mask Rees' immobility.
Expect to see Kelly and Denbrock call for a number of passes deep down the field to freshman receiver Corey Robinson, a 6'4", 205-pound threat in the vertical passing game.
What has plagued Notre Dame defensively this season compared to last is its inability to consistently create turnovers; the Irish rank 78th nationally in turnover margin, while only having forced 14 turnovers in 12 games.
Regardless, the Irish must be insistent on playing with an attacking mentality in an effort to force Rutgers to cough up the football.
Meanwhile, the Rutgers offense as a whole doesn't present much of a challenge to the Notre Dame defense. The Scarlet Knights don't do any one thing particularly well offensively; Flood and co. rank 98th nationally in rushing offense, averaging a pedestrian 133.7 yards per game on the ground.
However, Rutgers is a tad better though the air, having posted a regular-season average of 242.3 passing yards per game. How well quarterback Chas Dodd performs will likely be a significant factor, as the senior quarterback earned the starting position from former starter Gary Nova following a 52-17 home loss to Cincinnati on Nov. 16.
Rutgers' Keys to Victory
Unlike last season during its run to the BCS National Championship Game, Notre Dame hasn't been a great run-stopping team during the 2013 season. In fact, the Irish rank 76th nationally in rushing defense, allowing an average of 175.3 yards per game this season.
If the Scarlet Knights can establish running backs Paul James and Justin Goodwin early on, the Irish will stack the line of scrimmage, which would be ideal for quarterback Chas Dodd and his receivers.
Head coach Kyle Flood often uses the rushing attack to get 6'6", 240-pound tight end Tyler Kroft in single coverage, which is similar to how Notre Dame utilized Tyler Eifert, currently in his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals, in both 2011 and 2012.
At the same time, Notre Dame can't lose track of speedy receiver and fifth-year senior Quron Pratt, who hauled in three receptions for 132 yards during a 28-17 loss to Connecticut on Nov. 30.
All the Rutgers defense needs to do in preparation for Notre Dame is go back and watch film of the Irish offense from both the 2011 and 2013 seasons.
Due to quarterback Tommy Rees' immobility, opposing defenses have commonly dropped eight in coverage on obvious passing downs, while stacking the line of scrimmage and daring Rees to throw on non-passing downs.
That condition has limited what the Irish are able to do offensively, though Rees' slightly improved arm strength allowed Kelly and former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin to burn opposing defenses down the field vertically this season.
But with enough time to prepare for the Irish offense, don't be surprised to see Rutgers ready to defend the numerous straight seam routes and four-vertical concepts employed by the Irish in their passing game.
Notre Dame Players to Watch
DaVaris Daniels, WR
As I mentioned earlier, Notre Dame is likely to emphasize the play-action passing game against a porous Rutgers passing defense.
And with the Scarlet Knights opting to key in on leading receiver TJ Jones (why wouldn't they?), redshirt sophomore DaVaris Daniels could be in for a monstrous performance at Yankee Stadium. The Vernon Hills, Ill., native has recorded 46 receptions for 720 yards and seven touchdowns this season while becoming the team's second-leading receiver.
What makes Daniels such a dangerous receiver is his blazing speed, which was on display numerous times throughout the season, including an 82-yard touchdown reception at Purdue and a 61-yard score against BYU.
Jarron Jones, NG
With former nose guard Louis Nix no longer a member of the program after suffering a meniscus tear and signing with an agent, Jarron Jones has received an increased role in the Irish defense.
The 6'5", 305-pound defensive lineman has filled in admirably for Nix and is a key part of the Irish's efforts to stop the run.
And as opposing offenses have been fond of doing in Nix's absence, Rutgers is likely to show an increased effort to run the football, making Jones' presence on the field that much more important.
Rutgers Players to Watch
Chas Dodd, QB
Prior to Dodd's promotion to starting quarterback, the Rutgers offense had been limited to 30 points or less on seven occasions.
Thus, a need for a fresh face at quarterback was necessary, and Dodd has more or less sparked the Scarlet Knights offense. Since taking the reins from former starter Gary Nova, Dodd has completed 35 of 59 passing attempts for 465 yards and two touchdowns along with two interceptions.
During a win against South Florida in Rutgers' regular-season finale, the Lyman, S.C., native led the Scarlet Knights to their third-highest scoring output of the season: 31 points.
Steve Longa, LB
The face of Rutgers' attacking front seven is Longa, a sophomore linebacker out of Saddle Brook (N.J.) High School.
The 6'1", 220-pound linebacker has tallied 111 total tackles this season, 49 of the solo variety. Those 111 total tackles have made Longa the first Rutgers defender to post at least 100 total tackles since Gary Brackett, a current Indianapolis Colts linebacker, did so in 2002.
Expect Longa to be extremely active at the line and in the backfield when his team takes the field in New York City Saturday afternoon.
What They Are Saying
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly on playing in New York City, per UND.com:
It's been a great place for us. I remember being at Yankee Stadium, the way we were treated there. New York is certainly a great place for Notre Dame. We have great support in that area, subway alums. It's a home away from home. Chicago, New York, the West Coast has been great.
We'll be well received there. The Pinstripe Bowl has been terrific to work with. They've done everything to make it a great event for our players. So I'm really pleased with how they have really initiated and have followed up with making this a great event for our players. Excited about the opportunity for our team.
These practices have been great competition. I've really enjoyed watching the younger guys, guys like Dorian Miller, a guy like JJ Denman, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Nick Internicola, those guys up front I've tried to put my eyes on more so than the rest of them. I think it's been a great experience for those guys.
Kelly on what his expectations are for the bowl game, per UND.com:
Well, we want to win the football game first. I want to send out our football team and build momentum into 2014 with a win. In particular, our seniors going out with a win, I think that's very important. They've meant so much to the program. I think that's first and foremost, getting a win for our seniors, and the momentum it builds going into 2014.
Flood on having grown up in New York City, per Ryan Dunleavy of MyCentralJersey.com:
To have a head football coach at Rutgers University who grew up in New York City as a Yankee fan and to have a head football coach at Notre Dame who grew up in Massachusetts—there is a baseball team in Massachusetts that people in New York are not generally fond of—I don't know if there could be a better matchup here in the Pinstripe Bowl.
It certainly isn't a return trip to the BCS National Championship Game, but the Pinstripe Bowl is what Notre Dame was rewarded with for its 8-4 finish to the regular season.
While it's easy to assume the Irish don't have much to play for, that sentiment is false in nature.
The practices leading up any bowl game are essential to developing younger players and gaining steam into the following season, which is exactly what the Irish have done. Sure, Rutgers, a 6-6 team, doesn't present the greatest challenge in terms of name recognition, but that doesn't equate to Notre Dame playing uninspired football.
With quarterback Tommy Rees playing his final collegiate game, fans and viewers alike should expect to see an impressively efficient performance from the Lake Forest, Ill., native, which will also spur the Irish offense to post what should be their most explosive offensive performance to date, particularly against an outmatched Rutgers defense.
The Scarlet Knights will make things interesting early, but the Irish will have things wrapped up by halftime.
Prediction: Notre Dame 35, Rutgers 14