The big 2013 Pinstripe Bowl breakdown: Irish in transition (but heavily favored)

Jeff Zelevansky

In different ways, it's a what-could-have-been season for both Notre Dame and Rutgers. The Fighting Irish beat good teams and lost to mediocre ones, while Rutgers basically lost every good player to injury at some point. Notre Dame is heavily favored in the Pinstripe Bowl (noon ET, Dec. 28, ESPN), but assuming you know what's going to happen in an Irish game this season is pretty foolish.

It's got a prime backdrop, custom hats, and a stadium that screams, "Notre Dame and Army in the 1930s" (in name, at least, if not location). And its climate-month combination makes the odds of snow football pretty high. The New Era Pinstripe Bowl has a lot of things going for it in trying to stand out among other bowls. Now it just needs better tie-ins.

The current tie (No. 4 from the ACC vs. No. 7 from the Big 12, or a stand-in) means that, of the eight teams who will soon have played in the Pinstripe Bowl, two entered the game at 8-4, four at 7-5, and two at 6-6. None were ranked. And in the 2013 F/+ rankings, one is among the 40 worst teams in FBS. Starting in 2014, it'll at least pair two local conferences, in the ACC and Big Ten.

Potential snow and Yankee Stadium make this game worth watching. In 2013, nothing else really does.

How they got here

RU's season to date

In my 2013 Rutgers preview, one of the 10 things to know was "It's been a while since Rutgers had a bad defense." Well, now I feel like the construction worker who has to flip the "Days without an Accident" counter back to zero.

The Scarlet Knights' defense, nearly elite in 2011 and 2012 and no worse than average in the preceding seasons, was downright awful this fall. After allowing 5.6 or fewer yards per play in each of its first five contests (not a great average, but not awful), RU allowed 6.9 yards per play from October 10 to November 30. Houston averaged 8.4, Cincinnati 8.7. And in perhaps the most awful performance of the season, Connecticut -- Connecticut -- averaged 6.0.

Injuries up front and inexperience in the back contributed to this tumble, but what a tumble it was. And in what should in no way be a surprise, Rutgers lost five of the six games in question, turning a 4-1 start into a 6-6 finish. The Knights rallied to whip USF, 31-6, in the season finale (allowing 151 yards, 3.0 per play, in the process), but until (if) the offense is ready to pick up the slack, the Rutgers defense has to perform for RU to be a top-40 team. It did not in 2013.

Notre Dame's season to date

Considering Notre Dame was coming off of a 12-1 campaign, it's fair to say that the Irish were pretty disappointing in 2013, falling three games to 8-4.

But they weren't boring. Oh, no. They continuously refused to allow anybody to get an accurate read on them, falling to Michigan, trying as hard as possible to lose at Purdue, then handing Michigan State its only loss. They fell to Oklahoma, beat Arizona State and USC (giving them wins over three teams in the F/+ top 12), barely held on to beat Navy, and fell to Pittsburgh. That they finished the year by beating BYU and losing to Stanford, instead of the other way around, was perhaps the biggest surprise of the year.

So yeah, 3-1 versus F/+ top 12 teams and 5-3 versus everybody else. With a seven-point win over a Purdue team that lost to Indiana by 20, Northern Illinois by 31, and Cincinnati by 35. That's normal, right?

Regardless, when the Irish fall out of BCS bowl contention, independence means they fall pretty far. Instead of hanging on against Pitt and/or Michigan and maybe snagging a Sugar Bowl bid or something (don't act like that would have been impossible -- Oklahoma made a damn BCS bowl, after all), they get Rutgers at Yankee Stadium instead.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Rutgers 6-6 NR 90 86 95 28
Notre Dame 8-4 NR 25 -14.5 16 32 54
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
RU Offense 108 47 98 75 42 58 90
Notre Dame Defense 59 44 48 61 85 23 109
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
RU Offense 99 101 78 98 91 113 76
Notre Dame Defense 63 88 47 88 113 51 115
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Notre Dame Offense 7 42 35 12 59 38 53
RU Defense 66 92 18 101 68 107 102
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Notre Dame Offense 37 29 93 73 5 3 15
RU Defense 29 1 114 33 57 68 54
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
RU Special Teams 22 109 97 26 4 21
Notre Dame Special Teams 79 58 106 71 34 32

RU's biggest advantages:

Notre Dame won't be able to run. That the Irish ranked 35th in Rushing S&P+ might be the single most surprising number above. I'd have guessed around 60th. They aren't awful at it, but they've struggled to find the right runner for the right time -- Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson III, Tarean Folston, and Amir Carlisle have all had opportunities as the go-to back, but each are limited in their own way.

McDaniel will probably get you forward yardage but won't get more than about six yards. Atkinson is a home run hitter who has never really learned to thrive between the tackles. Folston is actually becoming a solid combination of the two, but he's young. In all, Notre Dame does get its yards on the ground -- 166.3 per game since September 28 -- but not in reliable fashion.

Meanwhile, despite Rutgers' numerous defensive deficiencies, standing up against the run really isn't one of them. Even with a rotating cast of characters up front, the Scarlet Knights do rank 18th in Rushing S&P+ and first in Opportunity Rate (giving runners an opportunity downfield). Linebacker (and freshman All-American) Steve Longa is the tackling machine you always expect Rutgers to have, and tackle Darius Hamilton is becoming the five-star stud he was supposed to become.

Notre Dame finds a lot of success with intermediate passing on standard downs (and could very well find all the success in the world with this in New York), but there's a chance Rutgers can render the threat of the Irish run moot. Make a Tommy Rees offense one-dimensional, and you give yourself a fighting chance.

Rutgers could win the field position battle. Even with an awful passing defense, Rutgers ranks in the top 25 in Field Position Advantage thanks to a decent ability to move the chains (even while not scoring) and a fabulous return threat in Janarion Grant.

There's obviously a chance that Notre Dame simply scores too much for field position to matter much, but if the good, healthy version of the Rutgers defense shows up, and Grant gets a couple of opportunities in the return game, Rutgers could tilt the field and hang in the game a while.

Notre Dame's biggest advantages:

Rutgers might not be able to run either. When sophomore running back Paul James is healthy, Rutgers has a star in the backfield and exactly the kind of threat it needs to open up its other potential strength: downfield passing. James was injured in his senior year of high school and failed to get attention from recruiters. He was injured last season as a Rutgers walk-on and only got five carries. But then he exploded for 182 yards against Fresno State, then another 311 in games against Norfolk State and Eastern Michigan.

Just as he was becoming a known entity in college football, he broke his fibula, missed a month, and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in the season's final four games. If he's rested and healthy, he has shown he can be a home run hitter.

The problem is that Notre Dame doesn't allow many home runs. The other problem is that the Rutgers offensive line can't open many holes for James or anybody else. The Irish defensive front isn't as stout as it was supposed to be, partially because it just isn't and partially because of the late loss of star Louis Nix III to injury, but with Stephon Tuitt and company, the Irish line should still have an advantage over Rutgers blockers, and if James isn't breaking into the open field with relative frequency, the long passing game likely won't take hold either.

Notre Dame's passing game is underrated … and Rutgers' pass defense is terrible. Bad combination for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers had to replace six of its top seven tacklers from last year's secondary, and of the four RU defenders who had at least three sacks in 2012, only one returned (end Jamil Merrell), and he's been slowed by a foot injury all year. So with a pass rush that didn't improve and a secondary that got incomprehensibly worse, Rutgers fell from 41st in Passing S&P+ to 101st.

The Knights are passive and inconsistent against the pass. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is certainly not very efficient through the air -- Tommy Rees has completed just 54 percent of his passes -- but make all sorts of plays downfield. Six Irish players have caught at least eight passes in 2013; each has averaged at least 15.1 yards per catch, including tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack. Rees is entering his final game as Irish quarterback; he could put up big numbers on his way out the door.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Injuries and drastic youth in the secondary have cast a pall over Rutgers' season; the Scarlet Knights could bounce into the Big Ten in 2014 with a more experienced Gary Nova handing to a healthy Paul James, throwing to a healthy Leonte Carroo (the sophomore averaged 9.2 yards per target and scored nine touchdowns in 28 catches but fell victim to injuries late in the year), etc. Plus, the front seven could be deep and fun, and the secondary isn't going to get any less experienced, anyway.

Rutgers will likely improve in 2014, but a solid showing at Yankee Stadium, or perhaps even an upset win, would start the redemption story a little earlier.

For Notre Dame, it's a winter of change. Nix has already declared for the NFL Draft, and Stephon Tuitt will probably follow. Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin is the new Miami (Ohio) head coach, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is the new head man at UConn. T

he identity of this club will change drastically, but there will still be plenty of talent on display, from returning quarterback Everett Golson to linebacker Jaylen Smith and everywhere in between. It's hard to know what to make of the Irish in 2014, but we probably won't change our assumptions much no matter what happens in New York.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Notre Dame 39, Rutgers 17
Win Probability: Notre Dame 92.4%

If Rutgers can shut down Notre Dame's running game, score a big play or two (of any kind -- run, pass, defense, return), and keep the game close enough for field position and special teams to matter, the Scarlet Knights could certainly shock a Notre Dame team that might be a little bit distracted by all the turnover in the coaching booth. But that's really a lot of ifs compared to Notre Dame's list, which is basically "If the Irish mean business..."

If both teams bring their A-games, Notre Dame wins in a walk. But nothing has really gone according to plan for the Irish in 2013, for better or for worse.

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