NEW YORK — Though the stage is smaller, and the opponent less imposing and the stakes aren’t nearly as high as they've been for the Irish before, a victory is no less essential.
“We’ve seen eight wins,” head coach Brian Kelly said during a media conference on Friday, Dec. 29. “Nine looks better to us.”
The Irish (8-4) hope that ninth win will come against Rutgers (6-6), a one-time American Athletic Conference favorite who crumbled midway through the season. Rutgers started the season 4-1 before losing four of its next six.
The Scarlet Knights rallied to piece together a 31-6 win against South Florida in the final game of the season which gave Rutgers the six wins it needed for a bowl bid.
The teams will face off Saturday for the fourth annual Pinstripe Bowl. The Scarlet Knights are 2-0 in Yankee Stadium, but how do they match up with the Irish?
After something of a quarterback battle, senior Chas Dodd was named starter over Gary Nova for the final two games of the regular season. Dodd helped Rutgers qualify for a bowl game with the win over South Florida, and he earned a start against the Irish, too.
Dodd is like Tommy Rees in that he won’t wow anyone with arm strength or mobility. Also like Rees, Dodd’s strength is in his unshakable demeanor and experience.
Dodd is 63-of-105 of 712 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, on the year. Overall, Dodd has 1,637 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and 17 interceptions on his career.
Rutgers may not have to rely on Dodd so much with the resurgence of running back Paul James. Prior to his leg injury, the sophomore was the No. 2 running back in the nation in the first four games of the season. James missed the next four games, but now he’s back and stronger than ever. With James out, Rutgers lost three of four games.
Rutgers will rely on James to burn the clock and keep the Irish offense from shredding the Scarlet Knights’ defense. If Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones is looking for an opportunity to further his appeal for next year’s starting nose guard spot, Saturday is the day to do it.
On one hand, Rutgers packs the fourth-best run defense in the country, holding opponents to 94.6 yards per game. On the other hand, opponents score an average of 29.8 points per game on the Scarlet Knights.
Most of that comes Rutgers’ secondary, which scrapes the bottom of the college football barrel with 311.4 yards allowed per game. According to Rutgers beat writer Daniel Duggan, the secondary set a school record in most passing yards allowed in one season.
Kelly’s offensive scheme presents the exact mismatch that punished Rutgers all year. Rees is no great arm, but his steadfast chemistry with TJ Jones, Troy Niklas and DaVaris Daniels could pick apart the corners and safeties all day.
Freshman running back Tarean Folston will get another start and will face a unit under the influence of interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. Rossi hinted that he has tweaked the defense to be more aggressive against Notre Dame.
With Rutgers’ overall defense already one of the worst in school history, expect Rossi to take risks on Saturday.
As for individual players, look for redshirt freshman linebacker Steve Longa, who leads the team with 111 tackles — including 7.5 for loss — three sacks and two forced fumbles.
Rutgers will benefit from the return of James and the Scarlet Knights could put up a good fight against Notre Dame’s tailbacks, but the Irish are still a better, more talented team across the board.
Notre Dame will snag that coveted ninth win in the heart of its greatest hub of “Subway Alumni.”
Notre Dame 31, Rutgers 13