Pinstripe Bowl the perfect fit for Rutgers, ND

12/28/2013 11:14 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Paul James and the Rutgers University football team can wonder what might have been in 2013.(AP)
Whether they won or lost the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, 2013 could still have been considered a disappointing season for two proud football programs in Notre Dame and Rutgers.

Roughly 51 weeks before winning the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, the Fighting Irish were playing in the BCS Championship Game after going undefeated in the 2012 regular season; they looked poised for another BCS berth after a 7-2 start this year, but they lost two of their final three – the last a heartbreaker against Pac-12 champ Stanford – to finish 8-4 and end up taking the vacated Big 12 spot in this year’s Pinstripe Bowl.

“If you look at the last couple of years, we we're probably as close to being an eight-win team as we were a 12-win team,” head coach Brian Kelly said during Friday’s media conference. “We were probably as close to being a 10-win team this year as we were an eight-win team, though.”

The Scarlet Knights, meanwhile, started the year on the wrong end of a 52-51 shootout at eventual Mountain West champ (and hopeful BCS buster) Fresno State, but after winning their next four and building momentum, they proceeded to lose five of six and needed a win over South Florida in the season finale to even earn bowl eligibility at 6-6.

And yet, all that “disappointment” aside, these two teams were the perfect matchup for the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, representing both old and new, local and national pride.

The 2013 season was the final year of the bowl’s initial affiliations, a draw that pitted an American Athletic Conference (and formerly Big East) team against one from the Big 12, or, if that league lacked enough eligible teams, Notre Dame. Come the 2014 bowl, though, the matchup will be ACC vs. Big Ten – and that means that Rutgers vs. Notre Dame could, in theory, meet once again right here at Yankee Stadium next December.

Starting next season, Rutgers will be moving to the Big Ten, making them one of two teams (along with former Big East and now ACC mainstay Syracuse) eligible to have played in the Pinstripe Bowl under two different conference affiliations; meanwhile, Notre Dame, which had its Olympic sports in the Big East and had a Big Ten-heavy football schedule until last year, will finish its “transition” to the ACC next year, the first year of their agreement with the conference that will see them stay independent but play five teams each year from the league and be an “ACC team” for non-BCS bowl scheduling purposes.

And so, both came to New York City on December 28 on the precipice of a new beginning, set to close the previous chapter with a preview of that future.

“If you get an opportunity to play in a bowl game, in a venue like this, against a storied program like Notre Dame, it’s always an opportunity to showcase your program,” Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood said on Friday. “I don’t know what it will mean going forward, but it’s a great showcase for our program right now to play against a great program like Notre Dame, and we’ll look to our future in the Big Ten once it’s over.”

Beyond the conference logistics, there was also the matter of fan base, as both teams had a large chunk of fervent supporters among the Pinstripe Bowl-record 47,122 fans in the crowd. The main campus of Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, is roughly 45 miles from the Stadium, while Notre Dame is of course much like the Yankees – the most iconic brand in college sports, and one that counts followers from its home in South Bend, Indiana, all the way to both oceans and back again.

Both teams have played here before, with Rutgers winning the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl and both teams having faced Army in the past, but perhaps none of those games were as pressure-packed as this one. Neither team wanted to finish with a loss, especially a Rutgers squad looking to avoid finishing under .500, and with the Big East/American having won all three of the previous Pinstripe Bowls, the Scarlet Knights’ best exit gift from the conference would have been preserving the perfect record.

“If they put the scoreboard on, we want to win, so we’re going to do everything we can to be 1-0 in that game,” Flood said Friday. “Ultimately you look at the season in its entirety and I think there is a big difference between 7-6 and 6-7, a winning record and a losing record.”

For Notre Dame, a final record of 9-4 or 8-5 is really just a matter of numbers on paper, but Coach Kelly also admitted before the game that the former would mean a lot more, even if it is just semantics.

“You say it’s not a BCS game, but (Flood) and I, we’re competitors,” Kelly said. “Any game that you put in front of us, we want to win. We love the venue, we love the bowl, and we love what happened with our kids this week, but all that doesn’t matter; as the saying goes, any game worth playing is a game worth winning. You definitely want to finish the season with a win, because it helps you with your evaluations; we’ve seen eight wins and we’ve seen 12, but nine looks better for our group.”

When the final gun sounded, it was Kelly and Notre Dame who walked away with a win and the Steinbrenner Trophy in their possession, but both walked away from part of their history and toward the beginning of that new era.

It was one, however, that Flood wasn’t ready to dwell on just yet.

“I think it would be disrespectful to the Pinstripe Bowl and the people who put it on to make this a reflection on the season,” he said after the loss, but did admit that even if it wasn’t the desired result, and even if Notre Dame plays every one of their home games at one of the most iconic venues in sports, neither he nor Scarlet Knights could ever have the fact that they ended this era of Rutgers football in inside another set of hallowed halls.

“I grew up a Yankees fan in Queens and I think the players know I grew up here, but I think that they know how special of a venue this is, and that’s probably more important to them than anything else.”

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