Rees leads Notre Dame past Rutgers in Pinstripe Bowl

December 28th, 2013

NEW YORK -- Kyle Brindza's favorite athlete is New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. On Saturday, the Notre Dame kicker did his best to imitate the future Hall of Famer.

Brindza made five field goals, including two in the fourth quarter, to help Notre Dame defeat Rutgers, 29-16, in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in front of a record crowd of 47,122 at Yankee Stadium.

"Fourth quarter's what I love," Brindza said of the success he's had making pressure kicks. "The reason why I love Rivera is because he's a closer. That's what I like to think of myself."

Three times in the second half, head coach Brian Kelly handed the ball to his closer. And much like Rivera did time and again for the Yankees, Brindza did for the Fighting Irish.

"We have a saying on the team and that's, 'Count on me,'" the kicker said. "Coach Kelly said, 'Can you make this,' and I said, 'Count on me.'"

With the score tied at 13-all after two quarters, Rutgers (6-7) went three-and-out to begin the second half. Notre Dame (9-4) embarked on a 15-play, 71-yard drive that appeared to end with Brindza's second miss of the afternoon. But a penalty for running into the kicker gave Brindza a second chance and he connected on a 26-yard boot.

After another Scarlet Knights punt, the Irish again orchestrated a 15-play drive, this time traveling 90 yards before ending with a 25-yard field goal.

Brindza's final attempt of the game was a 49-yard field goal with 2:28 remaining in the fourth quarter, which was the longest kick in Pinstripe Bowl history and capped the scoring. The lengthy try -- and the entirety of Brindza's performance -- earned the head coach's praise.

"When we need a kick, he drills one late in the game," Brian Kelly said. "He is so good in the fourth quarter."

Brindza, however, wasn't named the game's Most Valuable Player. That award went to fifth-year offensive lineman Zack Martin, who anchored a unit that allowed Notre Dame to use its ground game to control the clock in the decisive second half.

Over the final 30 minutes, the Irish ran for 112 yards and retained the ball for 20:13. For the game, they totaled 175 yards on the ground. The offensive line didn't allow any sacks.

"He's the best offensive lineman I've ever coached," Kelly said of Martin. "Those linemen play so well because of his leadership."

Much like Brindza, Martin and the offensive line were ready to answer when called upon.

"We knew there was gonna be a point where the offensive line and the backs, we were gonna have to take over," Martin said. "Our defense got a couple stops and we were able to put together some long drives."

Martin couldn't recall the last time he earned an MVP award. Brindza said his teammate was deserving of the honor.

"He's been here for five years, two-time captain. We're one of the best offensive lines in America," the kicker said. "He works 24/7. He's always dedicated to what he does."

While Notre Dame dominated second-half possession by a 2-to-1 clip, Rutgers remained within striking distance well into the fourth quarter. But the Scarlet Knights were unable to take advantage of their chances.

"We had opportunities in the second half that we just didn't capitalize on," Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood said. "We had two great kickoff returns by Janarion Grant … and only yield three points."

Quarterback Chas Dodd was intercepted three times and finished 10 of 28 for 156 yards. The Scarlet Knights amassed just 80 yards on the ground and went 2-for-12 on third-down conversions.

On the other side, Notre Dame signal-caller Tommy Rees thrived. He went 27-for-47 for 319 yards and set Pinstripe Bowl records for completions, pass attempts and passing yards.

"He's so smart. You can go in and run a system with him. He's so bright," Kelly said of Rees. "He just has the ability to pick up all of the things that we can do offensively."

Rees and the Irish tried to establish their passing attack in the first half, throwing 29 times in the opening 30 minutes. But the Scarlet Knights' defense stood tall in the red zone.

Brindza opened the scoring with a 21-yard field goal, then Kyle Federico answered for the Scarlet Knights with a 36-yard try. Rees and TJ Jones led the Irish down the field, with the latter scoring on an eight-yard run.

Dodd then answered on the following drive. He found Brandon Coleman on a beautiful 51-yard pitch and catch down the sideline, and two plays later the duo connected for a 14-yard touchdown pass.

In the second quarter, Brindza and Federico, who went 3-for-3 on field goal tries, again traded scores. The Fighting Irish and Scarlet Knights went into halftime even at 13.

But the Irish, led by Cam McDaniel (17 carries for 83 yards), Taurean Folston (17 for 78), Brindza and Martin took over in the second half. Folston's three-yard touchdown plunge with 3:38 remaining provided the exclamation point on a Pinstripe Bowl victory and a nine-win season.

Notre Dame became the third different school to lift the George M. Steinbrenner III Championship Trophy, joining two-time winner Syracuse (2010 and 2012) and Rutgers (2011).

The conclusion of the game also ushered in a new era for the Pinstripe Bowl. Beginning in 2014, the game will feature a Big Ten team against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. With Rutgers' impending move to the Big 10, the Scarlet Knights could return next season to go for their second title. And with Syracuse now a member of the ACC, the Orange could vie for their third.

For now, though, it's the Fighting Irish who leave New York on top.

NOTES: Brindza finished 5-for-6, setting Pinstripe Bowl records for field goals made and field goals attempted…Federico briefly held the Bowl mark for longest field goal with his 47-yard try mid-way through the fourth quarter…Rees eclipsed 3,000 yards passing for the season, becoming just the third Notre Dame quarterback to reach that mark…Coleman's receiving touchdown was the 20th of his career at Rutgers, tying the school's all-time mark…other Pinstripe Bowl records set include: points scored by a kicker (17 by Brindza) and longest kick return (51 yards by Grant).