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December 30, 2013

Quick six points

Notre Dame may have intercepted four Rutgers passes, but two of them came either in the Scarlet Knights' end zone or within inches of it, so no threats for return touchdowns. But if KeiVarae Russell's two excellent pass break-ups in the end zone are included, the Irish pass coverage accounted for six noteworthy plays.

1) Starting with Russell, the sophomore cornerback made his intentions clear for 2014 in the Pinstripe Bowl's first half. Twice he looked beaten in the end zone, and twice he turned, found the ball and knocked it away, first with his right hand as his left kept track of the receiver, and then the other way around.

To close the first half, Russell prevented a third touchdown, though running back Justin Goodwin did Notre Dame a favor when he drastically under-threw the pass. Russell picked it off at the six-inch line before falling to a knee at the one.

If foiling three potential touchdowns in the first half wasn't enough, Russell started the second half with more of the same. On the opening kickoff, Janarion Grant broke at least six tackles -- at points Irish defenders bounced off each other, making it difficult to count just how many got a hand on the Rutgers return man -- before Russell tracked him down.

If Russell's play last Saturday is any indication, he'll fulfill his intentions of being the best cornerback in the country next year.

2) Speaking of kickoff return coverage, Irish head coach Brian Kelly spoke bluntly of Notre Dame's failings.

"I don't know why anybody hasn't brought up the sky-kick after watching that disaster of a kickoff coverage team," Kelly said after the 29-16 victory. "My gosh."

While Kelly certainly was not wrong, the performance in New York City was actually better than the season in general. Notre Dame allowed the Scarlet Knights 145 return yards on six kickoffs for an average of 24.2 yards per return. During the regular season, the Irish gave up an average of 25.94 yards per return.

If Kelly was referring to Grant's 51-yard return specifically, the tackling was very poor. At least six Irish defenders got a hand on Grant before Russell made the touchdown-saving tackle. Junior kicker Kyle Brindza got two hands and a helmet on Grant. Though Brindza may be a kicker, he's a 236-pounder.

Grant's gash through the Irish coverage marked the longest return against Notre Dame this season.

3) While Russell's close to the season made his hopes for 2014 clear, Troy Niklas's 2013 ending was far more subtle. In the final four games of the season -- two of which were losses -- Niklas caught 10 passes for 126 yards and no scores. In the previous nine games, the junior tight end pulled in 22 passes for 372 yards and five touchdowns.

While his stat-sheet production tailed off, Kelly insisted Niklas's overall production had remained steady before the bowl game.

"If you look at all the jobs that he does, if he's not necessarily effective for us during the game catching the ball, he's extremely effective for us in other areas," Kelly said before leaving for New York City. "I wouldn't necessarily point toward him not catching balls and being less effective as I would say we're just not getting him the ball maybe as much as we should."

Against Rutgers, Niklas caught four passes for 76 yards.

4) Continuing with 2013's last moments, with two sacks on the final drive, Stephon Tuitt either announced his intention to have a monster 2014 for Notre Dame or that he's ready for the NFL.

The junior defensive end finished the season with 7.5 sacks. Officially, he made 1.5 sacks on the final drive, sharing one with senior linebacker Prince Shembo. The half-sack is notable as Tuitt ponders ending his Irish career. He is now tied with Victor Abiamiri (2003-2006) for third all-time at Notre Dame with 21.5 sacks. That additional half-sack would have given Tuitt sole possession of the third slot.

Heading into the Pinstripe Bowl, Tuitt's last sack came against BYU, and before that he notched two sacks against USC on Oct. 19.

5) There's no question Tommy Rees will not return to play for Notre Dame next year. The quarterback has exhausted his eligibility and gotten the most out of his talents in that time. The Pinstripe Bowl was Rees's second trip to Yankee Stadium. The first came in his debut away from the confines of Notre Dame Stadium.

The successor to the House That Ruth Built was kind to Rees. He totaled 40-of-67 passing for 533 yards in his two stops, adding one touchdown and one interception -- both in 2010 -- as well as five rushes for seven yards.

Rees finished his climb up the Notre Dame record books with 7,670 career passing yards, surpassing Ron Powlus for third place at Notre Dame. Rees's 61 career touchdowns are second in the Irish record books. His 37 interceptions are third most in Irish history.

His 224-of-414 passing this season actually cost Rees a Notre Dame record. He entered the year having completed 63.6 percent of his passes, which was a full percentage point ahead of Jimmy Clausen. After this season, Rees's career completion percentage is down to 59.8 percent.

6) On last Saturday's opening drive, Rees hindered that completion percentage further by completing only three of seven passes. However, those seven passes impressively targeted seven different receivers. By the end of the day, Rees had sought 10 targets, completing passes to nine of them -- freshman Will Fuller the exception, though Rees threw Fuller a tough, but catchable ball in the end zone on the opening drive.

That opening drive also included six rushes from four different ball carriers as the Irish offense showed variety even without a long-term offensive coordinator in place.

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