In a city that cherishes championships, nobody will confuse a Notre Dame-Rutgers game for the apex of college football. But the New Era Pinstripe Bowl gets one of the more interesting non-BCS games of the postseason, matching up two teams that would like to stake their claim as New York's team.
The Irish already have a loyal following in New York, with thousands of subway alums tracing back generations. That bond brought the Irish into new Yankee Stadium, part of a sold-out first football game in the "House that Steinbrenner Built" in 2010, as part of the Shamrock Series. Rutgers played in Yankee Stadium a year later, and with its inclusion into the Big Ten next season, the team wants this game to help it reclaim a turf war for the Big Apple.
Neither team has reached their goals this season.
The Irish's BCS dreams were dashed after a disappointing loss to Pitt in early November and a slew of injuries that derailed the season. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood very nearly lost his job. He was forced to fire three coaches on Sunday, according to the team's website, with defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, quarterbacks coach Rob Spence and offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski not taking part in the bowl game.
Let's get you up to speed on the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Date and Time: December 28, 12:15 ET
Place: Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, N.Y.
Radio: ESPN Radio, SiriusXM Channel 129
Controlling the Line of Scrimmage
Notre Dame players talked about finding a warm-weather climate to play a bowl game. That won't be happening, with Yankee Stadium in late December far from the coziest of confines. But if the Irish want to come away winners of their ninth game of the season, they won't have to look too far back to take a page out of their playbook for winning in the cold.
When the Irish beat BYU on a blustery, cold South Bend Saturday, they relied on a strong ground game and dominant offensive line play to control the football game. Playing without Louis Nix on the inside, they also got a great performance from Jarron Jones at nose guard, with Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day playing dominant football as well.
Offensively, the Irish carried the ball 47 times, leaning on Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston to power the offense. Tommy Rees was effective throwing off of play action, connecting with DaVaris Daniels on an early touchdown.
If the Irish play off that successful blueprint, they'll go home happy, even if they don't get a tan.
Win the Turnover Battle
There's no indicator more telling this year than turnovers for Notre Dame. A season after making a commitment to limiting mistakes, the Irish regressed, and it cost them four football games.
In the Irish's eight wins, they only had a negative turnover margin against Navy, a game they struggled to pull out. In their four losses, they turned the football over a damning 10 times.
- In the Irish's eight wins: 10 takeaways, six turnovers.
- In the Irish's four losses: three takeaways, 10 turnovers.
Brian Kelly has talked about the clear indicator that turnovers have been this season. If Notre Dame can hold onto the football, it should be just fine against Rutgers.
Keeping the Team Together
That Kyle Flood announced the firing of three coaches a day after Rutgers' postseason destination was determined tells you a little bit about how dysfunctional things have been in Piscataway.
The head coach barely seems to have been spared by Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann (no stranger to controversy herself this year), allowing Flood to take the Scarlett Knights into the Big Ten next year.
In a statement, Hermann said:
Our football program continues to evolve and grow, as evidenced by the changes Coach Flood just announced. I support these moves and Kyle’s leadership as we transition into the Big Ten. In two seasons, Kyle has led us to our first share of the conference championship and has guided our program to two consecutive bowls, including this season’s highly anticipated New Era Pinstripe Bowl versus Notre Dame.
The Scarlet Knights will likely coach with a short-handed staff, with special teams coordinator Joe Rossi taking on interim defensive coordinator duties while former Kansas State head coach Ron Prince will coach quarterbacks as well as coordinate the offense.
"After reviewing the season, I felt it was in the best interest of our program to make these staff changes," Flood said in a statement. "I appreciate all of the efforts of these coaches during their time in Piscataway and wish them well in their future endeavors."
Get Solid Quarterback Play
Rutgers has struggled to get efficient play out of the quarterback position, with Chas Dodd taking over for Gary Nova in the season's final two games. Dodd played efficiently in the Scarlett Knights' much-needed victory over USF to clinch a bowl berth, but he's a senior quarterback who's out of eligibility after the Pinstripe Bowl.
Nova's shown flashes of brilliance this season, playing very well against Fresno State in the season opener and in wins over Arkansas and SMU. But he's also thrown 14 interceptions, a big reason why Rutgers sits 103rd in the country in turnovers.
Flood has replaced quarterbacks coach Rob Spence and Rutgers expects Nova to be the front-runner for the starting job next year. Do they give him a chance against Notre Dame or bet on Dodd, who has played a lot of football over the past four years?
Whoever plays, he'll need to play well to beat the Irish.
The Irish's freshman running back has carried the load for the Irish offense down the stretch. He scratched out some tough yardage against Stanford in Palo Alto, earning the majority of carries from Brian Kelly after earning his way to the front of the depth chart.
Facing a Rutgers defense that ranks No. 4 in rush defense this year, the Irish will have to work hard to establish a ground game, with the Scarlet Knights giving up less than 100 yards per game. (Then again, the Rutgers pass defense is 122nd in the country, leading you to believe that perhaps the pass is the weapon of choice for opponents.)
While his numbers aren't necessarily gaudy, Folston has passed every test you could give the freshman back. He's shown the ability to make people miss. He's done well in pass protection. He hasn't had any ball-security issues.
With the running back race heading into the spring intense, a big bowl game performance would be the perfect head start.
With Louis Nix already signed with an agent, all eyes should turn to Tuitt, who has a difficult decision to make after the bowl game. After a slow start, Tuitt has notched six sacks this year, playing very well down the stretch as he's anchored the defensive line.
Tuitt could leave school early and likely find himself being picked in the first round of the NFL draft. Or he could return for his senior season to earn his degree.
Brian Kelly talked about Tuitt's decision on Sunday afternoon.
"All we've done is put in his paperwork to get an evaluation from the NFL," Kelly said. "I've had some preliminary conversations about his academic work. He still has some work to do academically. We haven't really delved into the depth of that yet."
But after seeing Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert and Nix all return for their senior seasons to earn their degrees, Kelly knows the sales pitch to return to school well.
"I personally think you come to Notre Dame, you want to get your degree," Kelly said. "That wouldn't just be for Stephon Tuitt, I think it would be for everybody."
After Jawan Jamison departed for the NFL, many expected one-time Notre Dame recruiting target Savon Huggins to take over the running back job. But instead, the bulk of the carries have gone to Paul James.
The 6'0", 210-pound New Jersey native only carried the ball five times in 2012, but he has been the Scarlet Knights' most effective runner, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, running for 833 yards and nine touchdowns on the year.
Freshman running back Justin Goodwin has burst onto the scene, gaining 4.8 yards per carry on 108 attempts, while Huggins is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry as a junior. Rutgers has the 98th-best rushing offense in the country, averaging 133 yards a game and just 3.7 yards a carry as a team.
Getting a balanced offensive performance will be key.
There's been no more important recruit for Rutgers over the past few years than Darius Hamilton. The Don Bosco Prep prospect was given a 5-star ranking by Rivals.com and chose to stay home and play for Rutgers instead of head to schools like Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State or USC.
At 6'4", 260 pounds, Hamilton has seen the field since the day he stepped onto campus, playing in all 13 games during his freshman season. His production has taken a large step forward this season as a sophomore, leading the team with 10 tackles for loss, while also chipping in 4.5 sacks.
With Chris Watt ruled out for the bowl game, first-year starters Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty and Steve Elmer will man the interior of the offensive line for Notre Dame. They'll be matched up with Hamilton in a battle that'll be worth watching.
Kyle Flood, on taking Rutgers to another bowl game:
"I'm really happy for this group of seniors that they get an opportunity to continue not a streak, but a tradition of sorts, their eighth bowl game in nine years that they get to participate in," Flood said, after beating South Florida 31-6. "We're really excited to play in the Pinstripe Bowl this year against a really fine program in Notre Dame."
Brian Kelly, on heading to New York to play in the new Yankee Stadium for the second time:
“Quite simply, we are thrilled to bring our football program to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl,” said Kelly in a statement. “We were privileged to play in New York City and Yankee Stadium in 2010. The treatment our University received from the Steinbrenner family, the New York Yankees and the entire organization was unlike anything we’ve experienced in my tenure at Notre Dame.”
Kelly, on the hard sell the Pinstripe Bowl's executive director (and former Notre Dame football player) John Mosley gave the Irish:
"John is a great guy. But they were here, and he wouldn't leave. He wouldn't take no for an answer. We're excited about it. It's fresh in our memory about how we were treated by the Yankees, and they're going to make sure that happens again."
Kyle Flood, on the timing of the changes to his coaching staff, via Tom Luicci of The Star-Ledger:
If we end up waiting until after the bowl game and sitting down with some people in the weeks following or in the new year, that will be fine, too. I’ve already got a list at each position of people that we are looking at and we’ll start working through. We’ve already started the process of working through those names.
Brian Kelly will need to balance prepping his team for next season with sending out his seniors with a win. That shouldn't be a problem against Rutgers, with the Scarlet Knights falling apart down the stretch with five losses in their past seven games.
After 12 games, it's hard to reach the conclusion that Rutgers is anything but a mediocre team, as the 6-6 record suggests. That doesn't mean the Irish can sleepwalk to victory, but finishing the season 9-4 sounds a lot better than 8-5, and Kelly and his team know that all too well.
The last time the Irish were in Yankee Stadium, they took care of business and soundly beat an overmatched opponent. I expect that to happen again.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Rutgers 13.