NEW YORK - If you missed all 12 of Notre Dame’s regular-season games, all you needed to see was the Pinstripe Bowl. That pretty much summed up the Fighting Irish circa 2013.
Yes, they left points on the field. Yes, they kept the opposing team’s points down. Yes, they relied on Kyle Brindza to do most of the damage. Yes, they played down to the opposing team’s level of play.
Notre Dame was a bit stouter defensively in the red zone and, for the first time this season, Tommy Rees did not throw a touchdown pass. But the Irish controlled the line of scrimmage, pounded out a couple of scores via the ground game, and came away with a hard-fought 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers.
“A good year that could have been a great year,” said Brian Kelly in his summation of Notre Dame’s 9-4 campaign and second bowl victory under his watch.
“Some really good victories at home against USC. I like the fact that over the last couple of years we’ve played well at home. But we had a couple of missed opportunities in some games where we every easily could have been a team looking at double-digits wins, and that’s where we want to be every year.”
Notre Dame dominated the line of scrimmage, out-gaining Rutgers, 494-236. The defense - without coordinator Bob Diaco - held the Scarlet Knights to just one touchdown in six red-zone trips. The 236 yards allowed was the lowest yardage figure of the season.
Yet Notre Dame never could pull away and had to rely upon Kyle Brindza to convert 5-of-6 field goals, including a 49-yarder with 2:28 remaining for the final points of the game.
“One of the things we tried to do defensively was limit the big plays,” said Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood. “We knew we were going to give up some drives. We thought if we played good red-zone defense and we could make them attempt a few field goals, maybe we could block one and then win the game in the fourth quarter.
“Ultimately, we had opportunities in the second half that we just didn’t capitalize on. We had two great kickoff returns that only yielded three points.”
Notre Dame ran 90 plays to Rutgers’ 55, dominating the time of possession by more than 16 minutes. But at least three catchable passes in the end zone fell to the turf - one each by TJ Jones, Will Fuller and DaVaris Daniels - which forced Brindza to nail three-pointers from 21, 38, 26 and 25 yards, in addition to his lengthy last kick.
“Our red-zone offense today was simply about catching the football,” Kelly said. “We had great looks, exactly what we wanted. We ran a boot that came out clean and we overthrew him. On another one, (tight end) Troy Niklas fell down. We had another opportunity and didn’t get it to TJ.
“So I’m really happy with what we did today in the red zone. We just didn’t execute. We’ve got to throw it and catch it down there, but when we needed to run it in, we were able to run the ball in.”
It was a 10-10 game after one quarter despite the fact the Irish had 157 yards total offense, including 112 yards passing. The Irish ran 49 plays in the first half to Rutgers’ 29, yet it was a 13-13 game at the break.
Once again, the Irish were ineffective in the red zone, marching inside the Rutgers’ 10-yard line on the opening drive, only to settle for a field goal.
After Rutgers tied the game at 3-3 following Jones’ fumbled punt, Notre Dame converted its second red-zone opportunity into six points when Jones scored his 11th touchdown of the season and second rushing score.
Notre Dame’s defense had difficulty containing elusive quarterback Chas Dodd, who converted a pair of 3rd-and-10s en route to a game-tying field goal drive midway through the second quarter. Dodd also found 6-foot-6 Brandon Coleman for a 14-yard scoring toss. Rutgers got three field goals from Kyle Federico from 18, 25 and 47 yards.
Notre Dame out-scored Rutgers in the second half, 16-3. Rees threw for 319 yards on 27-of-47 passes and no interceptions. Jones and Chris Brown each had five receptions for a combined 120 yards.
Cam McDaniel (17 carries, 80 yards) led a ground game that accounted for 175 yards. Tarean Folston duplicated that carry total and accounted for 73 yards, including a three-yard touchdown run with 3:38 remaining to give the Irish a 26-16 lead - its first two-score lead of the day.
The Irish defense sacked Dodd four times and intercepted him four times - one each by Kendall Moore on a defection, Dan Fox, KeiVarae Russell on a halfback pass at the goal line, and Austin Collinsworth on the final snap of the game.
“We want more,” Kelly said. “It’s not enough for us. 9-4 is a good year but for Notre Dame, it’s not what we sign up for every year. We wanted a little bit more out of this year.”