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Monardo: Pinstripe Bowl lacks meaning (Dec. 10)

Joseph Monardo | Monday, December 9, 2013

Brian Kelly was adamant during his press conference Sunday that the Pinstripe Bowl was a worthwhile destination for his football team. And maybe it is, for a variety of reasons. But that doesn’t make Notre Dame’s Dec. 28th meeting with Rutgers any less disappointing.

Sure, the game will be in New York, inside Yankee Stadium and on national television. The players will receive extravagant gift packages and a trip to the Big Apple. Notre Dame may reap some benefits in its recruiting efforts down the road or in its player development during the extra practice time. But as far as the football game is concerned, the Irish ended up in about as unexciting of a situation as anyone could have imagined before the season’s start.

To compare this year’s bowl experience to the BCS National Championship hardly seems fair, but that is exactly where the Irish were last year. And that is what makes the team’s current situation as unstimulating as it is. Notre Dame had hopes of returning to the title game this season, but at this point the schedule on the wall in the Irish training facility just serves as a reminder of how the Irish came up hopelessly short.

While an 8-4 record may have been satisfying in years past, in no way should that imply some necessary reversion of expectations away from being one of the top programs in the country and back toward what might have been appropriate four or five years ago. Brian Kelly seems to have set rather clearly the goals for his squad at a high level. And while the inclusion of the title game on the schedule may seem audacious or silly in retrospect, it was probably a more reasonable goal than it would have been at the beginning of 2012. While it exceeded all rational hopes last year, Notre Dame did not live up to the standards it set for itself in 2013.

The Irish did have their moments this season, winning a few games against impressive foes. The 17-13 win over Michigan State looks a lot more impressive than it felt at the time. Pass-interference controversies or not, the Irish were the only ones that found a way to beat the Spartans (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten), who ended the regular season fourth in the BCS rankings. Notre Dame also registered a midseason 37-34 win over Arizona State in Arlington, Texas. The Sun Devils (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) ended up 14th in the BCS standings, while No. 25 USC – another team the Irish bested – also showed up in the final poll of the regular season.

But the Spartans will play in a BCS bowl while the Irish face a Rutgers team that finished in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference. Two other Notre Dame foes whom the Irish played close earned spots in the top five bowls, as well. No. 7 Stanford will face Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, while No. 11 Oklahoma will play No. 3 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, although the Irish are most likely not envious of the Sooners (They don’t want Bama). Arizona State and USC also merited respectable opponents, and they get to face them in the warm-weather conditions Irish players had expressed a longing for. The Sun Devils get Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego while USC will meet No. 20 Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The Pinstripe Bowl at least sounds more respectable, but substantially it is not. Bowl selection is a complicated, multi-faceted process, but the Irish did not help themselves out by dropping four games including a bad loss to a Pittsburgh team that ended 6-6 and near the bottom of the ACC. The Irish had their chances to throw their name into the BCS bowl hat throughout the season, but a glut of turnovers and inconsistent play are what ultimately defined the season.  

Kelly was accurate in citing the ways in which their postseason bowl game will help the Irish. The younger players on the Irish roster – Kelly mentioned freshmen quarterback Malik Zaire, receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., and safety Max Redfield – have a chance to get more practice time in the weeks leading up to the contest.  Notre Dame’s stellar senior class has a chance to go out with a victory after four or five years that produced historic, if uneven, results. The players are happy to have the opportunity to spend Christmas in New York with their teammates, and will receive PlayStation 4’s as late Christmas gifts for their participation.

And with complete sincerity, good for the players. TJ Jones deserves much more than a gift package on his way out the door. Zack Martin has earned the right to enjoy the holidays with the team he has helped lead. In fact, the hard truth is the Irish got just what they deserved, as well. Their allotment is just less satisfying.  

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu