NCF Nation: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Fighting Irish are exploring the prospect of playing Georgia in the future, though the dates remain to be determined, senior associate athletic director John Heisler told ESPN.com. CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler reported earlier Tuesday that the schools are working to finalize a home-and-home series for 2018-19.
Notre Dame's last two games against SEC schools came in postseason play, with Alabama beating the Irish in the Discover BCS National Championship after the 2012 season and LSU topping them in the Nokia Sugar Bowl after the 2006 campaign.
Notre Dame has not played an SEC school in the regular season since it beat Tennessee at home in 2005, the second of a home-and-home series between those programs.
Scheduling matters surrounding Notre Dame -- always a storyline, given its independent status -- became further complicated in 2012, when the school agreed to play five ACC schools per season in 2014 while placing all of its other sports in the league as full-time members. With that agreement, plus three annual rivalry games that the Irish have no intention of ending (Navy, Stanford and USC), the program's schedule has seen several casualties lately, most notably Michigan, whose trip to South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 6 will mark the last scheduled meeting between the storied programs.
In December, Notre Dame announced its full schedules for the 2014-16 seasons, so any future series could not be scheduled before 2017.
It comes as little surprise that Georgia is the SEC school the Irish are looking into scheduling, as the Bulldogs had been mentioned in previous discussions about scheduling SEC opponents. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has spoken about the possibility of Georgia before, and Bulldogs athletic director Greg McGarity told CBSSports.com last year that a home-and-home with the Irish would be "very intriguing."
"Real hungry," the ballyhooed running back said. "It's like, I'm so hungry that I got so humble that I don't even want to talk about it."
Now the former ESPN four-star recruit and No. 2 running back from the Class of 2013 is turning heads this spring, the first step toward erasing the bad taste of last season and building toward a breakout fall. He understood the attention surrounding his every move (and non-move) last season, from fan speculation on a potential transfer to questions back home about where things went wrong.
But Bryant, who admitted to reading about himself online last season -- and who is as clueless as everyone else about how such transfer rumors surfaced -- has come to rely on an improved knowledge base to no longer question himself, or concern himself with those who do.
"I went back home in the spring and they're like, 'Oh man, what happened? You're not the same player that you were before,'" the Delray Beach, Fla., native said. "And like I said, all that stuff, all of that negativity just gave me the hunger now not to go back that way and just to come and make a big impact and show people what I can do, because honestly people are sleeping on me right now, so I'm just hungry."
The 5-foot-10, 204-pound Bryant said he rounded into form on and off the field as the Irish prepared for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl last December. The knee soreness that had flared up after Week 3 at Purdue, and that had required a minor procedure finally subsided, and Bryant had better acclimated himself with the life of a college student and with the less-than-ideal weather at his new home.
Knowing he could not play against Rutgers because of his redshirt status only stoked the eagerness that he now speaks so frequently of. So, too, did watching fellow Florida-born freshman Tarean Folston make a name for himself down the stretch last season, rushing for 470 yards and three touchdowns.
The early departure of George Atkinson III has left Bryant in a healthy three-man race in the backfield, headed by senior and leading returning rusher Cam McDaniel.
"All of us are competitors," Bryant said. "If I see Tarean get the ball, get a 10-yard gain, I'm going to want to get a 20-yard gain. If Cam get a 20-yard gain, I'm going to want to get a 30-yard gain. So it's like we're just so competitive amongst each other."
Bryant says he has gotten faster, adding that he has surprised even himself with the renewed "power" that everyone speaks of. He hopes to be better at catching balls out of the backfield, and he is itching to reach the end zone, saying that he can't remember going an entire year without a touchdown.
"Greg's a tough runner," McDaniel said. "He's very violent when he runs, that's for sure. I think anybody would say that. It's good for him. He's going to be explosive when he gets the ball in his hands."
Having re-adjusted to a game that had no longer come so easy to him, Bryant feels up to speed now, crediting his father, Greg Sr., a former Northern Illinois lineman, along with running backs coach Tony Alford, whom he says is like a father on campus.
As for why he was rudely awakened, and why that won't be a problem moving forward, Bryant turns to familiar terms to describe his mind set heading into his redshirt freshman season.
"It was because when I first got here, like basically Notre Dame humbled me," Bryant said. "Because when I first got here, I thought I was going to come in because Cierre [Wood] and Theo [Riddick], both of them left, [so] I thought I was going to come in and just jump right in the mix right away, but it didn't happen like that. So like my dad told me, when adversity hits you got to basically just -- I don't know, you just got to -- I'm just so hungry right now, it's crazy."
2. In a discussion on the ESPNU Football Podcast on Wednesday, my colleague Matt Fortuna made an interesting point in favor of the idea that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has established himself as a success in South Bend despite having had only one BCS-bowl season. Three of Kelly’s coordinators have been hired as head coaches: Charley Molnar (UMass), Chuck Martin (Miami of Ohio) and Bob Diaco (UConn). Here’s another point in Kelly’s favor: he is in year five in South Bend without questions surrounding his job security. Since Dan Devine retired in 1980, only Lou Holtz has passed the five-year threshold.
3. Has it occurred to anyone else that this is the golden age of college football in the state of South Carolina? The Gamecocks have finished 11-2 and in the top 10 in the last three seasons; Clemson has done both in the last two seasons. This from the flagship programs of a state best known in recent years for exporting its talent to national powers such as Florida State and Penn State. What Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney have achieved gets lost because they have one conference title between them in their present jobs. But the state of South Carolina stands behind only Alabama in recent success.
But with Golson back -- 15 pounds heavier and seemingly much more mature after spending two months with well-known quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego -- it is finally all in for Notre Dame. Its fan base has been anxiously awaiting the offensive theatrics that a Kelly team last displayed five years ago at Cincinnati, and the most important component to that is Golson.
"Absolutely," Kelly said, speaking about the quarterback position, specifically. "Your offensive line has to play well; it has to protect the quarterback. We've got to run the ball effectively, take care of it. But I think we all know college football and where it is: The quarterback is really going to be the centerpiece of this offense and the way we run it. It's going to fall on him.
"We all live in the same world when it comes to the Notre Dame quarterback. We're going to heap a lot on this kid's shoulders. And he knows that. That's why he came back to Notre Dame, because he wants that. Clearly, he's going to be the one that drives this for us."
Replacing the top protectors of Golson (and every other QB of the Kelly era) is paramount, as stalwarts Zack Martin and Chris Watt are gone after manning the left side of the line so well together for more than three years.
Finding reliable weapons in a passing game down its top three pass-catchers from last season is important, too. (One of those targets, DaVaris Daniels, is expected back this summer after making a Golson-like academic gaffe.)
Defensively, potential first-round picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are gone, as are three of the four starting linebackers. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco -- along with offensive playcaller Chuck Martin -- are gone, and longtime college and NFL veteran Brian VanGorder brings aboard the potential for a more aggressive defense, which should complement a much more aggressive offense.
A running game that lacked punch at times last year will be greatly strengthened by the dimension presented by Golson's legs, which he says got quicker despite the added weight.
It is weight his body and mind are ready to carry as he looks to bring Notre Dame's offense to a place it has longed for.
"I think if leadership ability is in you, it'll show eventually when you're called on," Golson said. "I think only being a freshman, I was still leading to a certain extent. I think now it's more heightened, I would say, because our team is so young this year. But it's been great. That's the spot that I want to be at and I was kind of born to be at, I would say, in a sense. So when it happens, leadership steps to the front."
2. Everett Golson returned to the football field at Notre Dame on Monday. How much did the Irish miss him last year? While total yardage and touchdowns remained virtually the same from 2012 to 2013, look deeper. The run/pass yardage ratio in 2012 was 46/54. Last season, it shifted to 37/63. Trips into the red zone dropped from 60 to 45. Notre Dame missed Golson’s ability to run. Quarterback rushing yards went from 285 yards to minus-30. Every defense is stressed by a running quarterback. The Irish have that threat again.
3. I love that Paul Chryst canceled Pitt’s spring game because his young team would benefit more from another practice than a pretend game, especially with the relatively low number of available players (seniors are gone, freshmen haven’t arrived, and the injured are recuperating). And I love that Chryst felt the need to apologize for doing so. Spring games are a valuable marketing tool to rekindle interest among fans during the long offseason. But I bet more teaching goes on in practice than in a spring game.
For the first time in what felt like a long time, the fifth-year Irish coach enjoyed a relatively drama-free signing day. His 22 verbal commitments going into the day all delivered on their word without any extracurriculars, and he even added an early-morning surprise from four-star defensive tackle Daniel Cage, giving the Irish their second win over Michigan State since September and further beefing up a class that finished with more linemen (12) than every other position combined (11).
"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship," he said. "If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want."
No, this is likely not a coincidence in light of the early NFL departures of Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, the first Irish underclassmen in the Kelly era to leave school without their degrees since Kyle Rudolph back in Year 1. And this does not exactly vibe smoothly with the program's "Pot of Gold" initiative that made headlines recently when Notre Dame sent packages to recruits containing 477 letters -- one for every draft pick to come out of Notre Dame.
But Kelly was deliberate from the get-go. He was cocksure. His was a seasoned voice speaking after four years at one place, having weathered the sleeplessness that accompanies a national title game appearance, four underclassman departures, and a number of defections and suspensions in what is quickly turning into a long Irish tenure.
And on a day when positivity and hyperbole reigned across the college football world, Kelly allowed for some genuine self-evaluation. He said he had to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL. He conceded that he had not initially cast a wide enough net when evaluating prospects on the defensive line, the unit that took the biggest hit after the 2013 season. He might have cut the sales job short for the sake of simply coaching his football team, comfortable and confident in what he wants and what it takes to win big at Notre Dame.
This Irish recruiting class, ranked 11th by ESPN RecruitingNation, is not his best. It's not nearly as good as last year's, which was ranked fourth before losing a top-10 player in the country. Nor is it as good as consecutive ninth-ranked classes in 2012 and 2011, which ended up seeing five of its top players move on to different schools.
The ranking mattered little to Kelly or his staff. They had already taken their third Irish team to a perfect regular season two years ago with somewhat of a hodgepodge cast of characters still finding their way on their respective sides of the ball. They likely believe that, if not for a gross academic oversight by Everett Golson, they could have been bound for potentially bigger and better things this past fall.
So what if this year's haul lacks a five-star phenom. So what if it features eight three-star prospects.
"I just was a little bit too narrow-focused on where we were with our defensive line, and I needed to just be a little bit more -- I needed to change my view of how we recruited defensive linemen and open it up a little bit more," Kelly said. "It was strictly a decision that I needed to make. We did it a little late, and we were fortunate that we were able to get two very quality defensive linemen late in the cycle here, but we've made that adjustment in our profile."
The adjustment paid dividends through the signing day fax from Cage and through a trio of three-star newcomers who committed in the previous three months: Jhonathon Williams (November), Kolin Hill (December) and Peter Mokwuah (January).
These were hardly highly sought-after prospects, at least by Notre Dame's usual standards. There probably isn't a Tuitt walking through that door. But Kelly has learned better than to allow a departure like that one change a season's outlook, showing enough faith in his player-development process -- and in an oh-so-close-to-being-filled roster, now at 84 scholarships -- to secure a foundation for years to come.
"I think if you really boil it down, it's about the front seven and the offensive line," he said. "Yeah, there's some great skill players that I'll talk about, but you're winning up front, and building that depth in the front seven and the offensive line really stands out in this class, and then having some really good players across the board for us."
If that's not going to jump out on brochures, so be it. Notre Dame has an identity, and its leaders show enough resolve to push the envelope with a class that's smaller in stars but tailored in fit.
2. What strikes me about Carroll’s double is how few men who won a national championship even tried to coach in the NFL. Beginning in 1936, when the Associated Press began its poll, I counted 15: in addition to the four coaches above, add Dan Devine, Dennis Erickson, Lou Holtz, John McKay, John Robinson, Bobby Ross, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Gene Stallings, Jock Sutherland and Bud Wilkinson.
3. It’s early, I know, but Notre Dame is already shaping up as one of the most interesting stories going into the 2014 season. Quarterback Everett Golson is back, but the anchor of the defensive line, nose tackle Louis Nix III left early for the NFL, and coach Brian Kelly has new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Not to mention slipping from 12-1 in 2012 to 9-4 last season. This will be Kelly’s fifth season in South Bend. The last coach employed at Notre Dame for more than five seasons? Lou Holtz (1986-96).
2. The good and bad of Twitter: the travel nightmare endured by Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman in Atlanta, when he spent 19 hours stuck on an icy interstate, is only a slight exaggeration of the road-warrior sagas that FBS recruiters go through every January. Herman used Twitter as lifeline and diary during his overnight stay. Then there’s Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, who, unaware of how serious conditions were, tweeted that Atlantans were “softnosed.” Shafer meant it as a chain-jerk, but it was a classic ready-fire-aim use of the medium. We’ve all been there.
3. Alabama has a commitment from kicker J.K. Scott of Denver Mullen High, which rings a bell for anyone who remembers Wide Right I and II. After Florida State lost to Miami in consecutive seasons, knocking itself out of the race for No. 1, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden had enough. In Feb. 1993, he signed the best high school kicker in the nation, Scott Bentley, also from the Denver area. Less than a year later, Bentley kicked the field goal that gave Bowden the 1993 national championship.
2. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher almost sounded frustrated over the course of last season as he would tell reporters that Jacob Coker almost beat out Jameis Winston to be the Seminoles’ starting quarterback. Yeah, right. But Fisher continued to say it all the way through the BCS Championship Game. Now it seems Coker, who followed AJ McCarron at St. Paul’s in Mobile, now will follow him at Alabama, once he graduates from FSU this spring. He will be a godsend for the Crimson Tide.
3. The ACC released its 2014 schedule Wednesday, and Florida State got the NFL treatment. The defending national champion’s schedule is harder. Pittsburgh and Maryland are gone. In come new members Louisville and Notre Dame, which begins its ACC semi-schedule. The Cardinals have quite the league initiation. They are the only ACC team to play four road games in five weeks. That doesn’t include playing in the two northernmost ACC outdoor stadiums, Boston College and Notre Dame, in November.
That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.
Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.
(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)
Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.
Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.
NEW YORK -- As the Notre Dame football team prepares to replace several key defensive starters and install a new defensive coordinator this offseason, former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's words about filling those voids stand out to sophomore corner KeiVarae Russell.
"He [said it's] like it's baking the cake. Instead of putting the sugar you put the spice in," Russell said. "It's still going to turn out to be a cake. It's going to be a different taste of it."
Notre Dame's players and coach are expecting that cake will taste quite good next season.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the team has its new defensive coordinator in place, reported to be Jets linebackers coach Brian VanGorder, and an announcement will be coming soon as the contract had not been finalized as of Saturday. VanGorder will replace Diaco, who left prior to the bowl game to become the head coach at UConn.
"We're going to have a lot of really good players coming back, I feel really confident in that," Kelly said. "[I'm] really excited about the prospects next year defensively in the guys we got coming back."
Notre Dame's defense shined against Rutgers, forcing four interceptions and holding the Scarlet Knights to just 236 total yards. More than half of the starters from that game, though, might not be back next season. Defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, linebackers Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, and cornerback Bennett Jackson all started their final game for Notre Dame.
Junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt also started against Rutgers and could skip his final season and declare for the draft. If he does, he will join senior defensive tackle Louis Nix III, who did not play against Rutgers after undergoing season-ending surgery but signed with an agent to forgo his final year of eligibility.
"He'll now focus on making that decision. We've had a couple of conversations. He knows all the information," Kelly said of Tuitt. "My job is to provide him with all the information about the decisions that he's about to make. I'm pretty certain he'll make his decision here very, very soon."
As he looks to next season, Kelly likes the core group of defensive players, and believes the team will benefit if it's able to achieve more continuity. Notre Dame started 19 different players on defense this year, as freshman safety Max Redfield made his first career start in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Kelly specifically mentioned Russell, who had an interception against Rutgers, and sophomore linebacker Jarron Jones as two players the defense can build around next season. Russell is confident he can be a major player for the new defensive coordinator and be a cornerstone for the defense next season.
"I personally believe I'm going to be the best corner next year in the country," Russell said. "This game shows me the development I had from the start of last year and from the beginning of the year to where I've progressed. My man-to-man skills have gotten a lot better throughout the year. Sky's the limit for me. This shows I can really be the best corner in the country, it just takes a lot of work to do that, and this offseason I'm going to work on all my assets."
“Hats off to Rutgers for playing a great game, but I’m really proud of the way we persevered and were able to pull it out,” Rees said.
It certainly wasn’t pretty. The heavily favored Fighting Irish mounted long drive after long drive but repeatedly had to settle for field goals. They racked up 258 more yards of offense (494-236) and nearly twice as many first downs (31-16) as the Scarlet Knights, but the game was tied at halftime and Notre Dame led by only three points with under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Rees engineered the game-clinching drive, leading his team 79 yards in 10 plays -- capped off by a three-yard touchdown run by Tarean Folston -- to put away Rutgers.
At this time last year, Notre Dame was preparing to play Alabama in the BCS National Championship on Jan. 7. This year, Notre Dame’s season ended three days after Christmas, with a record of 9-4 and thoughts of what might have been.
“A good year that could have been a great year,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said when asked to assess this season. “Some really good victories. ... A couple of missed opportunities in some games where we very easily could have been a team that’s looking at double-digit wins, and that’s where we want to be every year.”
Kelly’s comments -- and the fact that they don’t sound outlandish -- show just how far Notre Dame has come in his first four years at the helm. Kelly’s 37 wins tie him with Lou Holtz and Dan Devine for the most by a Notre Dame coach in his first four seasons.
Correspondingly, Notre Dame’s current senior class finished with 37 wins -- the most since the Class of 1994.
That group includes wide receiver TJ Jones, who had 1,042 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on the season entering the Pinstripe Bowl. Jones had five receptions for 66 yards against Rutgers plus four carries for 16 yards and a touchdown. The five catches moved him into second place on Notre Dame’s career receptions list with 181.
And Jones came back in the game despite suffering a second-degree shoulder sprain.
“I wasn’t gonna be done for the day -- not with my last game in a Notre Dame uniform,” Jones said. “I had to come back and contribute.”
That class also includes Rees, who wasn’t even supposed to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback this season. He stepped in due to injury his freshman year and started 12 games as a sophomore but lost the job to freshman Everett Golson as a junior and figured to play behind Golson as a senior -- until Golson was suspended for academic reasons.
Rees stepped in again and ended up throwing for 3,257 yards with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions -- becoming only the third Notre Dame quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.
His erratic play over the years might have infuriated Notre Dame fans at times, and Rees was far from perfect against Rutgers; in fact, an offensive lineman, Zack Martin, won the game’s MVP award.
But numbers don’t lie. Rees finished his career third in school history in passing yards (7,670) and second in touchdown passes (61) and joined Tom Clements, Joe Montana, Tony Rice and Rick Mirer as the only Notre Dame quarterbacks with two bowl game victories as a starter.
“I’m a Tommy Rees fan for life,” Kelly said. “He’s gonna go keep chasing that football dream. He’s gonna play in the East-West Shrine Game, and he’ll keep trying to play the game as long as he can. But I told him he’s got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly any time.”
The last time Notre Dame played at Yankee Stadium was three years ago -- a 27-3 win over Army. A freshman named Tommy Rees, making just the second start of his college career, completed 13 of 20 passes for 213 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Afterward, the wide-eyed freshman gushed about being given Derek Jeter’s locker in the Yankees clubhouse.
Three years later, Rees looked and sounded like a different person.
“To be honest, I’m not as emotional as I thought I’d be after my last game,” he said. “I’m just really enjoying the moment.”
Asked to evaluate his just-completed collegiate career, Rees politely declined.
“I’ll let you guys [in the media] judge that,” Rees said. “As long as I’ve got the respect and the commitment from my teammates and coaches, that’s all that’s ever mattered to me. I know I can leave here with my chin held high. I love the game of football. It’s pretty special to start at quarterback at Notre Dame, and that’s something I’ll hold with me for the rest of my life.”
Say what you want about Tommy Rees, but he finished on a high note.
Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:
It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.
Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.
Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).
Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)
What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.
What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.
To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.
Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.
What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.
Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).
At this rate, it would be easy to say that the concerns now fall on Kelly, who lost his second coordinator to a head-coaching job in an eight-day span Wednesday when Bob Diaco accepted the UConn post. That came in the wake of Chuck Martin packing his bags for Miami (Ohio). The moves hamstring the Irish staff as it readies for Rutgers on Dec. 28's New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and as it gears up for the mad dash to national signing day in the 39 days following the 2013 finale.
The initial reaction across players and fans, per routine, was overreaction. Tweets decrying Diaco for looking out for himself were soon deleted, eventually giving way to more and more congratulatory remarks for a man whose next career step was only a matter of time.
Make no mistake, this is far from the situation that is taking place in Piscataway, N.J., where Flood, the second-year head coach, let go of three assistants after an underwhelming 6-6 campaign. The Scarlet Knights step into the Big Ten next season. And this is far from the case that Kelly was referencing in that bowl press conference, as he had just taken the Cincinnati job and had only three of his Central Michigan assistants with him by the time the Bearcats faced, and defeated, Western Michigan in the International Bowl nearly seven years ago.
"It certainly creates a little bit of a challenge," Flood said of Rutgers' situation, "but I'm confident that people are put in positions where they can be successful, and that's really my job as the head football coach, to make sure we got a coach assigned at every position and in all three phases and the coordinator role."
Kelly's challenge is considerably smaller. This is Notre Dame, after all. Initial reaction among recruits speaks to that, with most youngsters recognizing that much of what they were promised remains in place so long as Kelly is at the forefront. If Diaco does not bring along other Irish assistants with him to Storrs, Conn., Kelly will have a much easier time filling the holes on his staff. Kerry Cooks, let's not forget, has also been the co-defensive coordinator these past two years, and he will probably take on Diaco's responsibilities for (at least) the rest of the month.
The fact this Notre Dame team went 8-4 and had its top two assistants get hired to run their own shows speaks volumes about where the program is now. Jimbo Fisher lost seven assistants in a season that ended with Florida State winning the Orange Bowl, and the Seminoles have turned out oh-so fine in the year since. This is a good problem to have, and as IrishIllustrated's Pete Sampson said, one coordinator leaving right after the other could trigger an eventful race back to South Bend to occupy Kelly's office whenever he should depart.
That's down the road. For now, the calendar has 19 days remaining in a year that began with a letdown against Alabama in the national title game and will likely end with a win against Rutgers -- with plenty of embarrassment (Manti Te'o, Everett Golson) and departures (Gunner Kiel, two receivers) sandwiched in-between.
As they did in this past year, the Irish will enter 2014 hoping to close whatever gap remains toward a national title. And while Jameis Winston isn't walking through that door, the two most important elements of that chase, Kelly and Golson, still are.