Notre Dame, ranked No. 25 by the Associated Press, had three drives of at least five minutes in Saturday's second half. Two of those drives ended in field goals, and the last resulted in a touchdown by Tarean Folston that gave the Fighting Irish a 10-point lead with less than four minutes remaining.
When it was all over, head coach Brian Kelly wanted to get with his team and deliver a heartfelt speech. Notre Dame, one year removed from the national title game, had a lot to be proud of.
"I first wanted to thank our seniors for what they have given to our program both on and off the field," Kelly said. "They have been great examples of what student-athletes are at Notre Dame both in the classroom, and they've certainly set a high bar. Four consecutive bowl games. Played for a national championship. Twenty-one wins in the last two years. So it was a bit emotional in that sense to see those guys for the last time in the locker room singing the fight song."
Notre Dame (9-4) and Rutgers (6-7) played to the first sellout in Pinstripe Bowl history, and the victory allowed the Fighting Irish to improve their all-time bowl record to 16-17. Notre Dame is now 17-6-3 in games played at Yankee Stadium, and it improved to 5-0 all-time against Rutgers.
Notre Dame ran the ball 43 times in the win, and quarterback Tommy Rees set a school record for bowl games by throwing the ball 47 times. But the true killer was time of possession. Rutgers held the ball for just 3:30 of the third quarter and netted just one yard as Notre Dame took control.
Offensive tackle Zack Martin was named the Most Valuable Player of the Pinstripe Bowl, marking the first time in the game's four-year history that the standout player wasn't a running back. Martin, in the aftermath, joked that he wasn't sure why he won, but that he'd gladly accept laurels for the team.
"Coming into the game, we knew there was going to be a point where the offensive line and the backs were going to have to take over," said Martin. "Our defense got a couple stops early in the second half and we were able to put together some long drives and get the ball in the end zone at the end."
Rutgers got off to a slow start Saturday, but it used a muffed punt by Notre Dame to tie the game on a field goal. Chas Dodd later led Rutgers on a 75-yard drive to tie the game again, connecting with Brandon Coleman for a 51-yard pass up the sideline and on a 14-yard touchdown to the corner.
Notre Dame intercepted Rutgers twice in the second quarter, once to set up a field goal and once to save another score. Dodd threw a pick at his 22-yard line early in the quarter, and with just three minutes left, Rutgers tried a halfback option pass that resulted in an interception at the goal line.
Neither team could push ahead at halftime, and Notre Dame was rarely challenged after the intermission. Rutgers kicked a game-tying field goal from the 1-yard line early in the second quarter, and coach Kyle Flood said that he knew his team would be in for a game of attrition.
"We knew we were going to give up some drives," he said. "We thought if we played good red zone defense and we could make them kick a few field goals and attempt some field goals, maybe we could block one and then win the game in the fourth quarter. We were kind of poised to do that."
Notre Dame, which played without running back George Atkinson III and cornerback Jalen Brown after an undisclosed violation of team rules, got five field goals from kicker Kyle Brinzda. Brinzda's five field goals tied a school record and set a new team mark for the most in a bowl game.
Kelly said that his team has a lot of building blocks for 2014, with four returning starters on the offensive line and a precocious young defense. Kelly knows that his team will miss standouts like Rees and wideout T.J. Jones, and he said Martin is one of the best players he's ever coached.
Notre Dame played five ranked opponents this season, beating Michigan State and Arizona State and losing to Michigan, Stanford and Oklahoma. Both the Michigan and Stanford losses came on the road, but Notre Dame fell behind early at home against Oklahoma and was never able to catch up.
"A good year that could've been a great year," said Kelly of his team's season. "I like the fact that the last couple of years we've played well at home, except for the Oklahoma game where we gave them 14 points early on some things we don't normally do. But I would say a couple of missed opportunities in some games where we could have easily been a team that's looking at double-digit wins.
"So it was a good year, but we want more. It's not enough for us; 9-4 is a good year for Notre Dame, but it's not what we sign up for every year. We wanted a little bit more out of this year."
Rutgers, by contrast, will go into next year thinking of untapped potential. The Scarlet Knights dropped six of their last eight games, and they'll begin play in the difficult Big Ten conference next season. Rutgers has only played in nine bowl games, but eight have come in the last nine years.
The Pinstripe Bowl, played in snowy conditions in each of the last two years, drew more than 47,000 fans Saturday. Rees set Pinstripe Bowl records in pass attempts (47), completions (27) and passing yards (319), and he also set a school record for career yards (683) in bowl games.
Rees also became the third quarterback in Notre Dame history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season, joining Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen (each of whom did it twice.) Now, Rees can ponder what comes next, but not until he gets a chance to savor the Pinstripe Bowl experience.
"It was an awesome week," said Rees. "They did a great job of taking care of us and giving us some great experiences in the city. Our goal all along -- and I've said it since Day One -- is we were coming here to win a game. And we were able to do that. Hats off to Rutgers for playing a great game."