Pinstripe Bowl 2013: Should Notre Dame Be on Upset Alert vs. Rutgers?

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIDecember 23, 2013

Nov 9, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver TJ Jones (7) carries the ball in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field. Pitt won 28-21. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of storylines involving both teams ahead of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Rutgers' final game before heading to the Big Ten Conference and Tommy Rees' final game for Notre Dame are among the many.

The Scarlet Knights and the Fighting Irish have both had up and down seasons, but Rutgers will come in as significant underdogs in what The Star-Ledger dubbed "Brain Bowl."

ND will enter the game as the heavy favorite to outsmart RU, according to

That large spread, coupled with an Irish team that isn't built to score points in bunches, has many bettors taking Rutgers with 14 points—a situation Dan Mason of pointed out.

Rutgers not only has a chance to cover that spread, but to take a straight-up victory behind a top-five defense. That strength against the run will be its best chance to please gamblers and head back to Piscataway with a shiny new trophy.

The Pinstripe Bowl will be the only bowl this season where both participants have graduation rates of 85 percent or higher, hence the Brain Bowl title.

While the two programs are proud of that distinction, leaving Yankee Stadium with a win would be nice, too.

The Scarlet Knights are No. 4 nationally in rush defense and are one of just five teams to allow less than 100 rushing yards per contest. They have managed this strong campaign despite fielding a slightly undersized offensive line.

As they line up with Notre Dame, they'll be facing a massive new test. Mike Becker of the Asbury Park Press detailed the stark size disparity between the Irish and the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers will be giving up an average of 45 pounds per player.

However, in speaking to Becker, Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton downplayed Notre Dame's size and boasted his own team's toughness:

Bigger is just bigger and everybody says speed kills, but I don’t think we’re only faster. I think if you watch any game that we ever played, our whole front four is physical. It’s as physical as they come so we’re really excited about the challenge.

The Notre Dame offense has been tested by several elite run defenses this season. The Irish have faced five defenses in the top 30 against the run, coming out at 2-3 in those contests. In the two wins, the Irish leaned on their defense, scoring just 17 and 14 points against Michigan State and USC, respectively.

Sep 22, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights defensive lineman Darius Hamilton (91) reacts after a play against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Rutgers defeated Arkansas 35-26. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chen
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

As Hamilton told Becker, stopping the run will be key for the Scarlet Knights and their defense. From there, they'll look to turn that strength up front into a strong pass rush against ND quarterback Rees:

We have to stop the run. Everything starts with stopping the run and when they decide to throw we gotta put pressure on the quarterback. When he’s got time in that pocket he makes great decisions. So we gotta get to him. We gotta get to him early and we gotta get to him fast.

The Irish run a balanced attack that can thrive even without a dominating rushing attack. Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood went as far to compare them to the New England Patriots, per Mike Vorkunov of The Star-Ledger:

They’re a little bit like the New England Patriots. They seem to be very multiple in what they do offensively depending on how they feel it works best for them depending on what they’re seeing.

Just judging by what they’ve done this season and what they’ve done in the past when coach Kelly was at Cincinnati, I would be surprised if we didn’t see a fair share of one-back type sets and things to spread us out. Those are the things people have attacked us with this year so I would anticipate we’ll be putting our game plan in to take care of those things.

While much of stopping the Notre Dame passing attack will revolve around pressuring Rees, it will also involve zeroing in on receiver TJ Jones. The senior finished the regular season with 1,042 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.

As strong as the Scarlet Knights have been against the run, they have been equally as weak against the pass. While coming in fourth in the country defending the run, they are fourth-to-last (No. 122) against the pass.

As cornerback Gareef Glashen said this week, the Scarlet Knights know the Irish will try to put the ball in Jones' hands, per Brendan Prunty of The Star-Ledger:

He’s a good player and he has good speed. He goes and gets the ball. I’d say he’s very versatile. That’s why they like to get him the ball as much as possible.

We’ve got guys like that on our team...Like them, he’s aggressive going up to go get the ball. They don’t wait for it to come to them. And they’re good route-runners. He’s very similar to those guys. But he’s a senior and has a lot of experience, so he’s very comfortable out there.

It'll be the job of Glashen and Co. to make Jones as uncomfortable as possible in his final game. If they can't make that happen, they will be in trouble.

The magic number might be 300 for the Notre Dame passing offense. Rutgers has allowed 300 or more passing yards in each of its six losses, while it has won only twice while its opponent broke that mark through the air.

The Scarlet Knights will look to stop the run first. If they succeed there, they'll try to harass Rees and the Irish passing attack.

If they do the first part, Notre Dame will be on upset alert—but Rutgers must also accomplish part two to complete the upset bid.