The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are gearing up for their final game of the season this Saturday when they face Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Notre Dame (8-4) will try to get over a disappointing season by beating up on the Scarlet Knights (6-6).
So why are these two teams playing in New York? Well, they both have huge fans bases in the city and New Era is trying to get a packed house to go along with improved ratings.
Both teams have underperformed this season. The Irish were hoping for another BCS Bowl game before an embarrassing loss to Pitt. Rutgers wanted a solid year before entering the Big Ten, but have had problems all season. Those problems culminated with three assistant coaches being fired from the team. Head coach Kyle Flood will likely be retained for a while, but the firings included defensive coordinator Dave Cohen who was at the center of a bullying controversy.
On the field, these two teams don’t exactly seem to matchup. Bowl pairings rarely make sense, but you would think that teams with similar records would face each other to make the game more interesting. There was some speculation that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was able to get Rutgers to avoid facing his former team, Cincinnati. But that was largely opinion, and its highly unlikely that Kelly has that kind of pull with the bowl committee.
Here’s what to watch for.
- Tommy Rees. Rees has done a bit of a Jekyl-and-Hyde act this season. He can be exceptionally good, leading his team to victory, or be the main reason the Irish lose. In wins, Rees completed 57-percent of his passes, threw 19 touchdowns and had just four interceptions. Losses? He completed under 49-percent of his passes, had just eight touchdowns and threw nine picks. His level of play dictates how well the Irish can move the ball. Rutgers gave up over 3,500 yards this season through the air, the most in school history. its likely that “Good Tommy” shows up Saturday.
- Play Calling. Kelly’s game plans have been infuriating this season. He has a tendency to call deep passing plays when a run would be better and vice-versa. The team’s strength is the running game, with Rees supplementing the offense on third downs and out of play action. Giving too much responsibility to Rees is a sure fire way to get him to crumble. He’s best when his attempts are in the low 20s, but given the horrible Rutgers secondary, I wouldn’t be surprised if he took closer to 30 attempts. Either way, he should find success throwing deep.
- Turnovers. Winning the turnover battle is a good indicator of who will win the game. But its more than true for the Irish. The Irish are plus-four in turnover margin in wins this season. In losses, they are minus seven. A lot of the turnovers are from Rees (13 interceptions) meaning he will have to be careful with the ball. The defense has struggled to force turnovers all season, but Rutgers has turned the ball over 26 times this season, near the bottom of the FBS. Expect the Irish to have more than a couple takeaways.
- Control the Line. As the season progressed, it became clear that this team has a stout offensive line that is very good at creating lanes for running backs. For the Irish, being able to run the ball takes a lot of pressure off Rees and opens up the entire playbook. The same is true of the defensive line. Even without Louis Nix, this line is still impressive. If they dominate the point of attack, and make Rutgers one dimensional, this game will be over by halftime.
- The Weather. Right now, it looks like it will be a mild day in New York. The high is expected to be 48-degrees and it will clear skies. The noon kickoff means that it will probably be in the 30s, but that might be nice compared to South Bend at this time of year. With a cold day, it will likely mean less passing from both teams, which plays into Notre Dame’s hands quite well.
I honestly don’t know how the Knights will be able to stop Notre Dame. Rutgers isn’t good at forcing turnovers or stopping that pass. About the only thing they do well is stop the run, but the pass D is so bad that it doesn’t really matter.
Whether its on the ground or on the strength of Rees’ arm, Notre Dame will win. Probably by double digits.
Rutgers doesn’t have enough explosiveness on offense to keep up and the Irish defense is capable enough to lock down the Knights’ offense. Notre Dame can’t sleep on Rutgers, but the talent gap suggests that the Irish run away with this one.
Notre Dame wins, 30-14.
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