NEW YORK -- Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees wouldn't concede that concluding the 2013 season at the Pinstripe Bowl was "anticlimactic," but he admitted the atmosphere was, well, "different" a year after playing in the BCS national title game. Coach Brian Kelly classified the season as 'a good one that could have been great." Game MVP Zack Martin, who anchored the Irish offensive line said curtly, "I'd agree with that statement."
It's hard to tell if 2013 was a steep fall for Notre Dame or simply a rebuilding year ravaged by injuries and suspensions, but its lackluster 29-16 win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl was a happy conclusion in a strange calendar year.
After enduring the Manti Te'o-Lennay Kekua fiasco and suspending starting quarterback Everett Golson before the season even started, Notre Dame still managed nine wins, including major victories over Michigan State and USC. But the Irish lost to Pitt, never established an offensive identity, and will almost certainly lose their best defensive player -- Stephon Tuitt -- to the NFL draft.
The Irish's decent performance against an overmatched opponent -- one they beat by a combined score of 197-17 over their four prior meetings -- felt incomplete. For two of 2013's most disappointing teams, Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl was mostly a disappointing product, a lifeless game lacking in execution and marked by unsightly turnovers.
"This was a good year that could have been a great year," Kelly emphasized. "We had some really good victories at home against USC. We had a couple of missed opportunities from being a team with double-digit wins. It was a good year, but we want more. We wanted more out of this year."
In front of a (paid) "sellout" of 47,122 at Yankee Stadium, the largest crowd in the game's history, the Irish spread out the Scarlet Knights, but didn't secure a victory until late in the fourth quarter with a Tarean Folston touchdown. Because of Notre Dame's red-zone struggles, Rutgers had a chance to win in the fourth quarter, but the subpar play of Chas Dodd sunk those hopes.
Saturday's game was full of confusing stats: Rees -- who finished his Notre Dame career with 61 touchdown passes -- couldn't find the endzone against the nation's 122nd-ranked pass defense, but his 319 yards marked the third-highest total of his career. Dodd had as many completions (6) as Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza had field goal attempts until 1:33 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Dodd and Rees entered their final collegiate games seeking redemption. Both earned starting jobs as true freshmen, both were supposed to be stable long-term quarterbacks, and both never met the ambitious expectations placed on them. Yankee Stadium was familiar terrain for both, as each earned wins on the converted field earlier in their careers (Dodd in the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl over Army, Rees in a 2010 regular-season game also over the Black Knights).
Saturday's game revealed why neither player ended up being a great long-term option for their team. Rees's performance was a tidy conclusion to his uneven career. He was sharp in exploiting Rutgers' soft pass coverage, but missed most of his throws inside of the red zone, leading to field goals after two separate 15-play drives. Afterward, the embattled Rees lamented that he could have made a couple of throws that he missed, but was simply happy to end his career with a win.
"I'll leave it to you guys to judge my career," Rees said. "As long as I have the respect of my teammates and coaches, that's all that matters to me. I know I can leave here with my head held high. I'm a Notre Dame guy and it's pretty special to start at quarterback for Notre Dame."
Kelly lauded Rees' intelligence and even speculated about a future job for the signal-caller.
"I'll let him know he'll always be welcome as a grad assistant on Brian Kelly's staff," the coach said with a smile.
Conversely, Dodd wasn't accurate and blindly hucked balls into double coverage, finishing with one long touchdown pass but three ghastly interceptions. While the senior kept the Irish defense off-balance with his zone read looks and ability to escape the pocket, he never seriously challenged the Irish defense and was overmatched in the second half.
Perhaps the most stinging indictment of the Knights' offense came from their own coach. Down 13-10 with 8:35 remaining in the second quarter, Rutgers, a two-possession underdog entering the game, faced a 4th and 1 from the Notre Dame 1-yard line. Coach Kyle Flood opted for the field goal instead of trying to take the lead.
"Our two run plays up close had not worked and on third down Chas was hit," Flood said. "I didn't have confidence in that drive that we'd be able to score and I thought the three points would be more valuable."
While Flood lamented seeing his seniors in uniform for the last time, Kelly embraced his and congratulated them on helping sustain a winning culture at Notre Dame. But the BCS title game to the Pinstripe Bowl is a downgrade. Perhaps this year was good and not great for Notre Dame, but they're probably just happy to see the calendar change.