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Notre Dame defeats Rutgers in Pinstripe Bowl

| Saturday, December 28, 2013

NEW YORK — Notre Dame out-possessed and outgained Rutgers all afternoon, but the Irish couldn’t pull away until late in their 29-16 victory over the Scarlet Knights in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.

Notre Dame (9-4) more than doubled Rutgers (6-7) in total offense (494-236), yet the Scarlet Knights kept hanging around as the Irish offense struggled in their opponent’s territory and Rutgers constantly started with strong field position.

Still, the Irish were able to send out their seniors with a win.

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“I first wanted to thank our seniors [in the locker room] for what they have given to our program both on and off the field,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “It was a bit emotional in that sense to see those guys for the last time in the locker room sing the fight song.”

Irish freshman running back Tarean Folston rumbled in for a three-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, as Notre Dame finally ended a long possession with six points. The score capped a 79-yard drive and gave Notre Dame a 26-16 lead with 3:38 remaining. Notre Dame’s previous three drives that spanned at least 70 yards all ended with field goals.

The Irish ran the ball 20 times for 63 yards in the first half, compared to 23 attempts and 112 yards in the second stanza.

“The second half we really focused on … trying to spread them out and get a thinner box so we were able to run up inside on them,” Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees said.

On the ensuing Rutgers possession following Folston’s touchdown, Irish graduate student linebacker Dan Fox intercepted Scarlet Knights senior quarterback Chas Dodd, his third pick of the day and the fourth for Rutgers, to effectively ice the victory. Irish junior kicker Kyle Brindza nailed a 49-yard field goal — his fifth of the game — minutes later for good measure.

“Fourth quarter is what I love,” Brindza said. “That’s pretty much what a kicker’s job is supposed to be. As I’ve told the media before, my favorite athlete is [former Yankees great Mariano] Rivera, and the reason why is because he’s a closer, and that’s what I like to think of myself.”

Brindza connected on two other second-half field goals — from 26 and 25 yards, respectively — to extend Notre Dame’s lead to 19-13 coming out of halftime. Both kicks came after the Irish powered into the red zone on drives of at least 70 yards.

Rutgers, in turn, stormed right into the Irish red zone, but touchdowns again proved to be elusive and Scarlet Knights sophomore kicker Kyle Federico drained a 47-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 19-16 with 8:57 to play. From there, the Irish took control, as Folston scored and Fox and Brindza put the bow on the Christmas-week win.

The senior class won its 37th game, the most since the class of 1994 also notched 37 victories.

“This is pretty special to go out there and have a close game … and have a drive or two at the end like we did and kind of impose our will a little bit,” said graduate student left tackle Zack Martin, who was named the Pinstripe Bowl MVP. “Couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to go out with in a better way.”

Rutgers had stayed within striking distance as the Irish struggled to convert in the red zone throughout the rest of the game, too, and the Scarlet Knights continued to make enough plays.

The Irish offense cruised on its opening drive, spreading the ball around and marching down to the Rutgers 5-yard line. Yet Notre Dame stalled after back-to-back incompletions from Rees and had to settle for a 21-yard Brindza field goal. Rutgers responded with a 36-yard field goal of its own — set up after Irish senior TJ Jones fumbled a punt away.

Jones atoned for his mistake with a 22-yard grab and an eight-yard touchdown run on Notre Dame’s next drive with 4:30 left in the first quarter, after which the offense went stagnant deep in Rutgers territory. On the scoring carry, Jones hurt his shoulder, suffering what Kelly later called a second-degree shoulder sprain that required in-game treatment.

Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights quickly responded as Dodd and senior receiver Brandon Coleman connected on a pair of completions, including a 14-yard scoring strike to tie the game at 10.

The Irish slowed on their next drive and punted back to Rutgers, but Irish senior linebacker Kendall Moore then recorded his first career interception on the first play from the Scarlet Knights. Dodd threw quickly to the right for Coleman, but senior cornerback Bennett Jackson jumped the route and forced a deflection into the arms of Moore. Notre Dame, however, couldn’t do much with the prime real estate, and Brindza knocked home a 38-yard field goal to put the Irish back in front 13-10 with 12:59 remaining in the first half.

“Our red-zone offense today was simply catching the football,” Kelly said. “We had great looks, exactly what we wanted. … We just didn’t execute. We’ve gotta throw it and catch it down there.”

The Scarlet Knights then embarked on a 12-play drive kept alive on two separate third-down scrambles by Dodd, who juked and pump-faked his way past the Irish defense. But on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Dodd fired incomplete to the left side and the Scarlet Knights elected to kick a game-tying 18-yard field goal rather than go for it.

“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,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.

The Irish stalled again in Rutgers territory and Brindza missed a 44-yard field goal, and the Scarlet Knights rolled down the field on their ensuing drive. On 1st-and-10 from the Irish 20-yard line, Rutgers dialed up a halfback pass, and freshman running back Justin Goodwin gunned to the end zone, where Russell picked him off at the goal line on an underthrown pass with 3:02 to play in the first half.

“I used to play running back, I saw the fact that the running back wasn’t running hard,” said Russell, a high-school running back who switched to cornerback at Notre Dame. “He didn’t have the ball covered. So I was like ‘This must be a pass.’”

Russell was also credited with three pass breakups, including a few in or near the end zone.

“I thought KeiVarae Russell was outstanding today,” Kelly said. “On body, I mean, just how many pass breakups did he have today where he was in great coverage.”

Following the interception, the Irish continued to control possession and rack up yardage, but the second-half drives ended in Brindza field goals. An unnecessary roughness penalty backed up the Irish once in the red zone, and Jones couldn’t corral a slightly-off pass the next trip inside Scarlet Knights territory, a missed opportunity Kelly mentioned could have been due, in part, to Jones’ shoulder. Kelly added Jones will likely be limited for three to four weeks.

Despite the inefficient red-zone trips for Notre Dame, Rutgers could only muster the lone second-half field goal. The Irish limited the Scarlet Knights to 236 yards of total offense and tallied four sacks to go along with the four interceptions.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike