In the end, Notre Dame left Yankee Stadium a winner. But how they got there was a frustrating exercise that mirrored the Irish's underwhelming season.
Notre Dame's 29-16 victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl was a final Saturday of heartburn for Irish fans that watched Brian Kelly's squad play up or down to their competition, failing to maximize their abilities as they struggled to do the little things took them to the BCS title game last year.
Even though the Irish gained 496 yards (nearly doubling Rutgers), forced four turnovers and controlled the football for over 38 minutes, Rutgers had the game within reach until the game's final four minutes. All because the bad habits that turned Notre Dame into a four-loss team reared their ugly head early and often on Saturday.
"A good year that could have been a great year," Kelly said after the game, summarizing the thoughts of thousands of Irish fans, per NFL.com's Mike Huguenin.
Notre Dame will walk into the offseason a winner, helping to erase the stink that wafted out of Yankee Stadium. But after slipping and sliding around on the sloppy turf inside the House that Steinbrenner built, the nine months between now and their next football game will hopefully help put to bed some of the deficiencies that plagued the Irish.
First and foremost were the team's red-zone struggles. Notre Dame scored on all five possessions it had inside Rutgers' 20-yard line but only got touchdowns twice. Too often the Irish moved the ball between the 20s at ease, only to stall out when they had a chance to bury a Rutgers defense that did its best to bend not break.
It started on the opening drive, when freshman Will Fuller couldn't hold on to a deep touchdown pass that would've pushed the Irish out to an early lead. Fuller was hardly the only problem, with touchdown catches dropped by DaVaris Daniels and TJ Jones, the Irish's two best receivers. While Jones battled back from a muffed punt and scored on an eight-yard run, it wasn't until freshman running back Tarean Folston powered into the end zone on a three-yard run with 3:38 remaining that the Irish put the game on ice.
Kyle Brindza bailed out the Irish by making five of six field goals in a stiff wind, but the inefficiency that's plagued this team continued after a month-long layoff. That's why Tommy Rees' 317 passing yards felt mighty empty, with none of his 47 attempts going for a touchdown, a feat considering the Scarlet Knights allowed 31 touchdown passes this season.
Just as troubling as the red-zone problems were the special teams mishaps. The fact that the Irish were almost capable of losing this game when their field-goal kicker made five field goals tells you the work this team needs to do in the offseason.
Kelly put an emphasis on improving the personnel on his kick coverage and return units, hoping that would give his special teams a jolt. But with injuries decimating the team's two-deep, the Irish had to turn to younger players and walk-ons to cover kickoffs, and that allowed Rutgers return man Janarion Grant to consistently start Rutgers in good field position. Still, it was almost Jones, the team's MVP and captain, that did the Irish in, gifting Rutgers three early points.
The win isn't necessarily hollow for Notre Dame. The struggles of this season could pay dividends next fall. During the Irish's 9-4 season, Brian Kelly had 22 players make their first start. Five of those came along the offensive line, while six came in the front seven.
Guys like Jaylon Smith, Steve Elmer and Tarean Folston will be key pieces to the 2014 Irish. So will safety Max Redfield and the freshman trio of receivers Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and James Onwualu. Per Huguenin, Kelly expects to have an answer from Stephon Tuitt shortly, with the Irish defensive end still deciding whether he wants to play out his eligibility and graduate from Notre Dame or head to the NFL now. He could be a two-win player on the defensive side of the ball.
The future still looks bright in South Bend, with the pieces potentially in place for a playoff run next season, especially with Everett Golson leading the offense.
The Irish's ugly victory over Rutgers puts an end to a frustrating season, showing the thin line between good and great in college football.
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