Even in defeat, Rutgers believes their Pinstripe Bowl journey was a success
The 2013 Pinstripe Bowl ended with a 29-16 win for Notre Dame, and for local-hopeful Rutgers, the loss was truly a case of the good, the bad and the ugly.
You have to start with the good, which was the way Rutgers' defense bent but did not break most of the game. Notre Dame's mantra was to try to stay true to their offensive identity and establish a running game but also pick their spots to take advantage of a pass-deficient Rutgers defense that was made even weaker when coordinator Dave Cohen was fired three weeks ago.
So, as Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said after the game, he and interim-defensive coordinator Joe Rossi -- also Rutgers' special teams coordinator -- had a plan to try to give an inch without letting the Irish take a mile.
"I thought Joe did a good job, especially doing double duty with the special teams. We talked about how we wanted to play the game, and I thought he did a very good job of giving us what we wanted and putting the players in position to make plays," Flood said. "One of the things we tried to do defensively was limit the big plays; when you put a defense together, if you do one thing you're going to give up something else, and we made the decision to try to limit the big plays."
The Irish didn't have a lot of big plays, instead seemingly grinding the ball for what turned out to be a series of long drives that ended less fruitfully than they'd have hoped. Notre Dame racked up 494 yards of total offense and had five drives of 10-or-more plays with four of those going for 70-plus yards, but the Scarlet Knights defense held them to three made field goals and one missed on four of those possessions.
A little "Luck of the Irish" may have also helped, as Rutgers twice held the Irish to field goals after turning the ball over inside their own territory, but Flood said that he doesn't think what happened at the end of the game -- Notre Dame finally converting a 10-play, 79-yared drive for the game-salting touchdown with 5:12 left - falls solely on fatigue or bad effort.
"Some of those sustained drives, we were wrong on some guesses, but I thought it was a good game plan," Flood said. "At the start of the fourth quarter it was 16-13 and we knew we were going to give up some drives, but we thought if we could play good red zone defense and limit them to some field goals, we could win the game in the fourth quarter. We were poised to do that, and they had big drives throughout the game. Was it too many in the end? I don't know that."
For all that good, though, the bad is not only the fact the game was not only a loss, but also the that in a similar vein to the Irish kicking five field goals, the Scarlet Knights failed to convert on several opportunities, three of which came about because of Rossi's special teams.
"Ultimately, for me, we had opportunities in the second half that we didn't capitalize on," Flood said. "We had two great kickoff returns by Janarion Grant to get into Notre Dame territory and we only yielded three points. I think that was a bigger factor."
That leads to the ugly, which was pretty much the scope of Rutgers' offense on the day. The Scarlet Knights managed 232 yards of offense on the day, but eight of their 11 true possessions ended in five plays or less -- including their lone touchdown drive -- and four, including the final one, ended in turnovers, the costliest of which was an interception thrown in the end zone by halfback Justin Goodwin on a trick play late in the first half with the game still tied.
"I think everybody has exotic plays in the playbook and every play you call is designed to work. You call them because you've had success in practice and the players build confidence in them and you as a play caller, and when you get on the field you call the plays you practice," Flood said. "That was one we had, and we didn't execute it. We practice that with all our backs, but when we do it in the game, we try to decide who the best option is (to run the play)."
Flood wouldn't blame a less-than-ideal playing surface for any effect it may have had on the game plan, though, as he noted that disadvantage is one that works both ways.
"The surface here was a good surface yesterday, and I think what happened was that as it got warmer and the ground thawed, it really got soft," he said, "and that I think was the reason why some players were slipping. I don't think it changed what we did on offense. It had an effect on both teams."
He did, however, praise senior quarterback Chas Dodd, who finished his final game with 156 passing yards and a team-leading 55 rushing yards, many of which came in big spots.
"Chas is a competitor. That's what he did today and that's what he's always done," Flood said. "Some of the plays he made with his feet, those were big plays. His rushing yards don't show it because he was sacked a bit at the end, but he gained 55 yards in the game and made plays and kept drives alive."
Dodd is one of many who ended their Scarlet Knights careers in the loss, and Flood was asked how he personally handled his final words to those in that boat.
"The game itself is so emotional because there's so much that goes into preparation for a bowl game…and then you look in the eyes of your seniors after the game and know this is the last time they'll suit up as Rutgers football players and see how much it means to them, and it's a very emotionally draining day," he said. "You hope that they can hear (the message), but (when the game is over, all you can do is) tell them we love you and we'll always be here for you, and then you thank them for all the effort they've given you throughout their career."
It's not the ending the Knights or the Queens, N.Y.-bred Flood wanted, but one other positive both the coach and team can always carry is that they got to take the field in one of the most historic venues in sports.
"I grew up a Yankees fan 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," he said.
And so, the Scarlet Knights' first-and-only season in the American Athletic Conference ends with a 6-7 record, and the team searching for its identity as prepare to head into the Big Ten Conference next season -- but Flood wouldn't comment on that in the immediate wake of the realization.
"You'd probably have to ask the recruits (if the Pinstripe Bowl effort helped them going forward into the Big Ten), because any time we go into a stadium, we feel we're ready to compete," Flood said, "(and) 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."