In a game meant to send off seniors, a handful of Notre Dame underclassmen shined.
NEW YORK — In the absence of former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, senior linebacker Dan Fox stepped up with a patented “Diaco-ism” to compliment a fellow defender.
“That’s a rugged cornerback. A rugged cornerback!” he roared as KeiVarae Russell walked into the interview room.
In an ugly game marred by Notre Dame’s season-long pitfalls, the moment belonged not to its departing seniors, but to a pair of Irish sophomores.
Following a 29-16 win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl, Russell and receiver Chris Brown signed off with impressive performances to chew on during the off-season.
Russell hawkishly shut down the Scarlet Knights’ passing game with three pass-breakups and several more tightly-defended routes.
After Rutgers 6-foot-6 receiver Brandon Coleman burned senior Bennett Jackson three times, Kelly swapped coverages.
When Coleman lined up in front of Russell, the corner taunted, “Game’s over, big guy. You’re on the wrong side.”
Coleman didn’t catch another pass the rest of the night.
“I thought KeiVarae Russell was outstanding today,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “On body, I mean, just how many pass breakups did he have today where he was in great coverage?”
Russell also grabbed a pick just in front of the goal line, cutting off Rutgers’ go-ahead score.
The pass came from running back Justin Goodwin in attempts to catch the Irish defense off guard. Russell, a former running back himself, didn’t take the bait.
“He didn’t have the ball covered,” he said. “No running back is going to run the ball like that. I saw that the running back wasn’t running hard and that (Coleman) is coming off fast.”
Russell reacted, stepping in front of Coleman just as the ball sailed toward him, grabbing an interception in what he called his best coverage game of the year.
To Russell, the only way to go from here is up.
“I personally think I am going to be the best corner in the country next year,” he said. “It showed in this game, the development I had last year to show this year.”
On the other side of the ball, Chris Brown posted career numbers after a season spent mostly in the shadows.
Entering the game with 10 total catches, Brown grabbed a co-game-high five receptions for 54 yards. Three of those catches were double-digit, third-down conversions.
Freshmen Tarean Folston and Jaylon Smith also went out on a fair note. Folston, believed to compete with Greg Bryant for a starting spot next season, finished with 17 carries for 73 yards and one of the team’s two touchdowns.
Smith, who staunchly established the foundation as Notre Dame’s next great linebacker throughout his rookie campaign, finished with six tackles.
“We’ve got a lot of young players coming back,” Kelly said. “So I think it’s important for us in this offseason to really develop that continuity and depth on our defense. We’re going to have a lot of really good players coming back. I feel really confident in that.”