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Notre Dame, Rutgers ready to clash in Pinstripe Bowl

NEW YORK -- Call it a cold-and-dry run for the Super Bowl. New York and New Jersey, hosts of the ultimate game in pro football this season, will also stage the fourth annual Pinstripe Bowl, which pits Jersey-based Rutgers against national behemoth Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Saturday.

Notre Dame, one season removed from a berth in the BCS National Championship Game, can appreciate its surroundings. The Fighting Irish had a rich tradition in old Yankee Stadium, and they're looking forward to capping off their season with a victory over Rutgers in front of their local alumni.

"You hear, 'Well, it's not a BCS game,'" said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "[Rutgers coach Kyle Flood] and I, we're competitors. That's first of all. Any game that you put in front of us, we want to win. It doesn't matter the venue. We love the venue. We love the bowl. We love what's happened for our kids this week, but we're competitive. The old phrase is, 'A game worth playing is a game worth winning.'"

Notre Dame, ranked No. 25 in The Associated Press poll, will be capping off a season that saw the Fighting Irish compete against five ranked opponents. Notre Dame (8-4) lost to Michigan, Oklahoma and Stanford, but it also earned impressive victories over Michigan State and Arizona State.

There's also the matter of Notre Dame's history against Rutgers. The Irish have played the Scarlet Knights four times -- including once at the Polo Grounds in 1921 -- and have never lost. Notre Dame has outscored the Rutgers 197-17 in those four games, a streak that includes three shutouts.

But the most recent victory came in 2002, which is almost three graduation cycles ago. None of the current Rutgers players remember any of those losses, and they just want to end their season on a positive note. The Scarlet Knights, 6-6 this year, will begin play in the Big Ten conference next season.

"This is a young football team," said Flood when asked about the future. "It will be a much different football team next year, when our senior class leaves and our freshman class comes in. That's kind of the nature of college football. These teams are very different year to year, so 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. Ultimately, when that game is over, we'll look to our future in the Big Ten."

Notre Dame can boast of 11 national titles, six Hall of Fame coaches and seven Heisman Trophy winners, but that hasn't always translated to success in bowl games. Notre Dame is 15-17 all time in bowl games and has lost 11 of its last 13 bowls dating back to the 1995 campaign.

Rutgers, by contrast, has only appeared in eight bowl games, but the Scarlet Knights have been busy recently. Rutgers lost the Russell Athletic Bowl last season, but it won the Pinstripe Bowl the year before. The Scarlet Knights, in fact, have gone to a bowl game in six of the last seven years.

Rutgers ranks fourth nationally against the run with just 94.6 yards allowed per game, but its secondary ranks 120th in pass defense (311.4 yards per game). Neither team has been particularly explosive on offense this season, and Rutgers goes into the bowl with losses in five of its last seven games.

"Ultimately, you look at the season in its entirety, and I think there's a big difference between 7-6 and 6-7. It's a winning record and a losing record," said Flood of the stakes at the Pinstripe Bowl. "To our senior class, winning this game is very important. We remember what it was like just a year ago to lose a bowl game against a good program in overtime. It's not a good feeling in that locker room, for the team. It's not a good feeling for those seniors who have to walk out the door for the last time."

Both teams will be watching a senior quarterback play his final game. Tommy Rees, second in career touchdown passes at Notre Dame, will hope to go out with a victory, as will Chas Dodd of Rutgers, who started as a freshman and sophomore before coming off the bench the last two years.

Notre Dame also features senior wide receiver TJ Jones, who needs four catches in the Pinstripe Bowl to move into second place in the school's record books. Four seniors -- Kona Schwenke, Prince Shembo, Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth -- will start for Notre Dame on defense.

"It's a little bittersweet and exciting," Jones said of playing his final college game. "It's exciting because you don't know what's next. I'm opening myself to the real world and there are countless opportunities, whether it's the NFL or any other job path I might take. But at the same time, I'm leaving a group of guys that I've built bonds with for four years and who I can honestly say are my brothers. It's going to be different next semester when they're going through spring ball and I'm sitting there watching."

Rutgers got to practice at home the last week, and Notre Dame borrowed the facilities of the New York Jets and the New York Giants for one day each. Both teams sent representatives to the New York Stock Exchange to ring the opening bell on Thursday, a traditional perk of the Pinstripe Bowl.

Notre Dame's players also got to take in the sights of Manhattan from Rockefeller Center, and they embarked on a group trip down to the World Trade Center memorial on Friday morning. Now, with the holidays and sightseeing behind them, it's time to focus on the bowl game business at hand.

"I've been to a number of bowl games and BCS games. I can tell you that in terms of the organization, in terms of the detail -- where you're going, what you're seeing -- you're really leaving here with an understanding of this great city," said Kelly of the events leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl. "I can tell you, after experiencing BCS bowls, it's as well-run as any. The kids have been part of that process. ... They're going to walk away feeling they were a part of the bowl season as much as any other program, and that's a tribute to the Pinstripe Bowl and the Yankee organization. They do it right."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for

New York Yankees