Bronx, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - Although the stakes will be lower than last year, the stage remains prestigious, as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the Pinstripe Bowl at New Yankee Stadium.
A year ago at this time Notre Dame was preparing for the BCS National Title game against Alabama, while dealing with some off-field controversy involving star linebacker Manti Te'o.
There is not as much fanfare this time around. The Irish finished the 2013 regular season at a solid 8-4, with marquee wins over Michigan State, Arizona State and USC. However, this year's results have clearly not lived up to the 12-0 mark the Irish had heading into last year's postseason.
"I don't know what goes into that kind of thinking. We have to prepare our football team. We want to win for our program to get to nine wins," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of his mind-set about a bowl game considered a step down for his program. " If we don't play well, (Rutgers will) beat us. We have everything to lose. We want to win the football game."
The good news is the Irish have remained competitive under Brian Kelly. He is the first head coach in program history to bring the Irish to a bowl game in his first four seasons. However, for a program heralded as one of the greatest in the nation, the Irish haven't always proven it come the postseason. In their 33 previous bowl appearances they are just 15-17, including losses in 11 of the last 13.
The final campaign for Rutgers, before joining the Big Ten next season, was an eventful but ultimately mediocre one. The Scarlet Knights were involved in two thrilling overtime matchups with a 52-51 loss to Fresno State and a 55-52 triple overtime victory over SMU. However they also dropped lost five of their final seven contest to close out the schedule at just 6-6 overall and 3-5 in American Athletic Conference play. It was quite a step backwards for a program that has had at least eight wins in six of the last seven seasons. That doesn't mean the head coach Kyle Flood doesn't appreciate the stage his team will be playing on.
"It's a really attractive matchup," Flood said. "It will certainly be an attractive matchup for their fan base and I think it will attractive to just the casual college sports fan that wants to see an event and to get an opportunity to go watch a football game in Yankee Stadium, one of the premiere venues in the world."
Flood has continued the renaissance for the Scarlet Knights that began under Greg Schiano. The Scarlet Knights had been to just one bowl game before 2005, but have been to one in eight of the last nine years. They are 5-2 in those postseason showings, though they were dropped by Virginia Tech, in overtime, (13-10) last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
In four all-time meetings with Rutgers, Notre Dame has never lost. The most recent matchup between them occurred in 2002. Spectators at the Pinstripe Bowl will certainly be hoping for a more even contest than that 42-0 rout.
Rutgers was not one of the more productive offensive teams in the AAC. The Scarlet Knights ranked seventh in the conference in total offense (375.9 ypg) and fifth in scoring (27.4 ppg).
The struggles on offense eventually forced Flood to slot in Chas Dodd at starting quarterback. Dodd started in the last two games of the season. In those two games he amassed 465 yards, two touchdowns and as many interceptions, while completing 59.3 percent of his pass attempts. Gary Nova (165-of-303, 2,159 yards, 18 TDs, 14 INTs) spent the bulk of the season as the starter but his tendency to force throws often led to mistakes, and eventually a loss of his job.
Dodd may be without one of his top targets in this bout. Leonte Carroo (28 receptions, 478 yards, nine TDs) made a name for himself as a big-play receiver but missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. He remains questionable for this contest. That will leave more opportunities for tight end Tyler Kroft (40 receptions, 530 yards, four TDs), who saw a boost in his numbers once Dodd got more playing time. Quron PRatt (31 receptions, 493 yards) and Brandon Coleman (32 receptions, 473 yards, three TDs) should also get targeted.
Paul James (833 yards, nine TDs) seemed to reclaim the starting running back role in the season finale against South Florida. The Scarlet Knights' lead rushing missed four games in the middle of the season but had 113 yards and two scores on 26 carries against the Bulls. Justin Goodwin (518 yards, five TDs) will provide fresh legs when James is subbed out.
There is a great deal of talent on the defensive side for Rutgers, led by linebacker Steve Longa, who led the nation in tackles by a freshman (111). Kevin Snyder (89 tackles) is another sturdy player in the linebacking corps, while Marcus Thompson (5.5 sacks) is the top pass rusher. However the Scarlet Knights were not as strong a unit as they were a year ago. Last season they ranked 10th in total defense nationally, but fell to 69th (409 ypg) in 2013.
There was not a great deal of excitement on the offensive side of the ball for Notre Dame this season. The ever-traditional program held fast to a pro-style system that netted 27.1 points and 398.5 yards per game. The Irish ranked 75th nationally in each category.
Tommy Rees managed to hold onto the starting job at quarterback all season, after last year's starter, Everett Golson, left the team last spring for academic violations. Rees did not provide the same element to the running game as Golson, but was solid enough, producing 2,938 yards and 27 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Rees was not a consistent enough passer though, completing just 53.7 percent of his pass attempts. In fact in five games he completed less than half of his pass attempts.
It is no secret who Rees will be trying to get the ball to during this contest. All season long TJ Jones (65 receptions, 1,042 yards, nine TDs) has been the go-to option. Jones leads the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns through the air. DaVaris Daniels (46 receptions, 720 yards, seven TDs) helped out as well, along with tight end Troy Niklas (28 receptions, 422 yards, five TDs).
The Irish have not relied on just a single back when running the ball. Cam McDaniel (659 yards, three TDs), George Atkinson III (555 yards, three TDs) and Tarean Folston (397 yards, two TDs) have all gotten their fair share of opportunities this season.
On the defensive side of the ball the Irish were much more effective. They held opponents to 22.9 points and 377 yards per game. However the team struggled to get a ton of pressure, with only 17 tacks and 59 tackles for loss. That effort wasn't helped with Louis Nix missing four of the final five games with a knee injury. He will be out for the bowl game as well. That has left a lot on the shoulders of defensive end Stephon Tuitt (7.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks) and linebacker Prince Shembo (5.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks).