Notre Dame Football: 10 Things We Learned in Irish's Win Against Rutgers
The final chapter of Notre Dame's 2013 season concluded with a 29-16 victory against Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, moving the Irish to a final record of 9-4.
The game itself wasn't the most beautiful piece of work, but in the end, Notre Dame walked away with the win and avoided finishing 8-5 for the third time in four seasons. Not only that, but head coach Brian Kelly and Co. were left with lessons to be learned.
So, what are the takeaways from the Irish's Pinstripe Bowl victory?
Let's have a look.
Tommy Rees' Career Has Come to an End
After four emotionally draining seasons, Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees' collegiate career has come to a close.
The Lake Forest, Ill., native, who was originally recruited by former head coach Charlie Weis, started 31 games for the Irish, with 23 of those starts ending in victorious fashion.
Say what you will about Rees, but the fact of the matter is that the 6'2", 215-pound quarterback was a winner. Sure, he's not the most athletically gifted quarterback and had a penchant for turning the ball over at critical junctures, but he was able to hang his hat on his immense knowledge and understanding of the game.
Head coach Brian Kelly validated Rees' mental football skills following the victory against Rutgers, essentially offering him a graduate-assistant position.
Kelly says tommy Rees will chase the football dream but Kelly says (with a big smile) that Rees has a graduate assistant job waiting for him— Angelo Di Carlo (@angdicarlowndu) December 28, 2013
Tarean Folston Locked Up the No. 1 Running Back Spot
What was long overdue finally came to fruition in the Pinstripe Bowl: Notre Dame freshman running back Tarean Folston was given the nod and listed as the Irish's starting back against Rutgers.
It was essentially an audition for the starting job heading into 2014, and the Cocoa, Fla. native delivered. Folston tallied 73 rushing yards on 17 carries to go along with a three-yard scoring run late in the fourth quarter.
That Folston has proven his consistency on a game-to-game basis is excellent news for the Irish, who will enter the offseason with clarity regarding the running back rotation in 2014. Expect to see Folston and fellow freshman Greg Bryant combine to form a lethal 1-2 punch at running back.
The Irish's Rushing Defense Was Stellar
As was a concern since nose guard Louis Nix was lost for the season due to a meniscus injury, the Irish's rushing defense came into question with an undermanned front.
That concern was silenced against Rutgers, as Jarron Jones, Sheldon Day, Stephon Tuitt and others limited the Scarlet Knights to 80 rushing yards on 26 carries, good for an abysmal 3.1 yards per rush.
What makes that effort even more impressive is that 24 of those yards were picked up on scrambles by Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd, who is a prototypical pocket passer. The case in point is that the Irish front seven effectively halted the Scarlet Knights' rushing attack from start to finish.
Notre Dame's Sloppy Play Was Highlighted by Penalties
During the course of their win against Rutgers, the Irish shot themselves in the foot multiple times due to a lack of composure and an inattention to detail.
Both Stephon Tuitt and Jarron Jones were tagged with personal fouls, rewarding Rutgers automatic first downs after being stuck in unenviable 3rd-and-long situations. Both penalties were a result of increasingly chippy play, which may have been a result of the Rutgers' enthusiasm to have been playing in the bowl and the Irish's perceived lack of interest.
In all, Notre Dame was flagged eight times for 69 yards, which will be an area addressed during the offseason.
Notre Dame Won Just Its Third Bowl Game of the Past 19 Years
While the Pinstripe Bowl certainly isn't on par with a BCS bowl game, it still marked just the third bowl victory for the Irish since 1995.
In that span, Notre Dame holds a rather disappointing 3-11 mark in postseason play, including the 29-16 victory against Rutgers Saturday afternoon. In fact, the Pinstripe Bowl victory was the second bowl victory of the Brian Kelly era, joining the program's 2010 Sun Bowl win against Miami.
Adding to Kelly's legacy is that he became the first Notre Dame head coach to lead the program to a bowl game in each of his first four seasons.
The Irish Will Have Plenty of Offensive Weapons in 2014
Against Rutgers, Notre Dame's incredible offensive depth heading into 2014 was on display.
Of the offensive skill position players who cracked the stat column, all but one—receiver TJ Jones—return next season.
Despite Jones' departure to the NFL, the Irish still have plenty of extraordinary talent existing at the receiver position, as Chris Brown, DaVaris Daniels, C.J. Prosise, William Fuller and Corey Robinson will be hauling in receptions from either Malik Zaire or Everett Golson next season.
Like the receiver position, running back will also be a loaded position in 2014, as Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III will return next season, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
CB Bennett Jackson's Draft Stock Took a Tumble
Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson was picked on by Rutgers during the Pinstripe Bowl, and his draft stock likely took a direct hit as a result.
Jackson, who is listed as standing 6', was often matched up in single coverage with Rutgers receiver Brandon Coleman, a 6'6", 220-pound match-up nightmare. While Coleman finished with just two receptions for 65 yards—both receptions were recorded on the same drive—his size clearly bothered Jackson.
Both of Coleman's receptions, including a 53-yard bomb, arrived in one-on-one coverage with Jackson.
There's no doubt Jackson will be suiting up in the NFL next season, though with his performance Saturday, it remains unclear whether an organization would use a draft pick on him or wait to sign him as a free agent.
Freshman Safety Max Redfield Earned His First Career Start
Fans have been clamoring for months for freshman safety Max Redfield to earn the starting nod, and that wish was granted Saturday.
Redfield, a former 5-star recruit per 247sports.com, was listed with the first unit prior to the Irish's victory against Rutgers.
The Mission Viejo, Calif., native was primarily a special teams standout for the better part of the season and was relegated to the lower tier of the depth chart not because of a lack of talent, but because of the tremendous mental ability required to play the safety position in the Irish's 3-4 scheme.
But if there's one takeaway from Redfield's start, it's that he's likely to be listed with the first unit at the conclusion of 2014 fall camp.
Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco Weren't Missed
Losing two coordinators prior to a bowl game isn't a simple task to overcome, though the Irish proved they were just fine without former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, each of whom accepted head coaching jobs prior to the Pinstripe Bowl.
In Martin's absence, head coach Brian Kelly was the Irish's play-caller, while Mike Elston and Kerry Cooks did an excellent job of coordinating the defense.
Prior to the bowl game, there weren't any true concerns about Martin and Diaco's respective absences, and that notion was validated by the team's 29-16 victory.
Notre Dame Can Begin Gearing Up for the 2014 Playoff Race
It sounds weird, doesn't it?
With the Pinstripe Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the Irish can officially begin preparing for what will be a difficult road to the first annual College Football Playoff next season.
With the return of quarterback Everett Golson and what should be a lethal offense, Notre Dame will begin its quest to the playoffs on Aug. 30, 2014, when the Rice Owls travel to Notre Dame Stadium. And if it's any indication, the relative success the Irish experienced with a non-mobile quarterback should have fans geared up for what could be a memorable 2014 season.