NEW YORK – It was at times boring, sometimes infuriating and only occasionally pretty, but how else should Notre Dame cap its 2013 season than with a sloppy, slippery though ultimately satisfactory 29-16 victory Saturday over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium?
A grinding defense covered for an inconsistent offense until the Tommy Rees-led unit was able to do enough to win – a formula Notre Dame employed several times with varying degrees of success on its way to a 9-4 record. It may not have been much fun to watch, but the players weren't the ones watching.
"It was a ground-and-pound second half," said running back Cam McDaniel, who finished with 80 yards on 17 carries. "It was fun to finish out that tough style we've done so many times. It's a staple almost to how this team has really worked over the last 2 years."
The No. 25 Irish had a few excuses for the less-than-desirable quality, starting with the field. The slick Yankee Stadium grass made it seem at times like a Rockefeller Center ice show on cleats.
That contributed to Notre Dame's struggles in the red zone, as they scored only two touchdowns in five trips while totaling 494 yards of offense. It was a minor miracle that kicker Kyle Brindza, who struggled at times with his footing, made five of his six field-goal attempts.
Part of the blame also could go to the flu that affected several Irish players before the game. Coach Brian Kelly said he gave a game ball to the training staff, the unsung stewards who treated as many as 16 ill players.
Rees was one of the players slightly affected, but he capped a tumultuous career at Notre Dame with a statistically strong day, completing 27 of 47 passes for 319 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions against Rutgers (6-7).
"I'm a Tommy Rees fan for life. …" coach Brian Kelly said. "Today was a case in point because we were able to do some things that we haven't done in a couple of years, and it looked like it was pretty easy for him."
In a fitting Rees performance, there were brilliant plays and hair-pulling ones when Rees missed open receivers or forced the ball into coverage.
But he led a late touchdown drive that iced the game with Notre Dame ahead 19-16. On the 10-play drive, Rees found tight end Troy Niklas for a key 28-yard gain that helped set up Tarean Folston's 3-yard touchdown run with 3 minutes, 38 seconds remaining.
That drive was one of the prettier moments Saturday. However, it was the kind of moment that was lacking a bit too much for Notre Dame this season when a few more breaks, and fewer moments of ugliness, might have made all the difference.
"It was a good year that could have been a great year," Kelly said.