Rutgers boasts the nation's No. 4 ranked rush defense but the 103rd-rated pass efficiency defense (and 120th in the less-telling category of passing yards allowed).
Notre Dame is nearly unbeatable when it attempts more than 30 rushes in a game (33-4 under head coach Brian Kelly) and has conversely proven ineffectual offensively when it rushes 30 times or fewer (3-9 including an 0-4 mark – yes, all four losses – this season).
What's a head coach and new offensive coordinator to do?
Keeping in mind that every rushing attempt means the absence of a pass – and the *14 turnovers and under 53 percent success rate that followed this season when an Irish quarterback let one fly – it seems the Irish must at least commit to running more than they throw. Greater pass efficiency should in theory follow vs. a Scarlet Knights pass defense that had trouble stopping a downfield throw when they knew it was coming, much less when playing the guessing game.
(*Notre Dame committed 16 turnovers this season, 14 on a passing play, with 13 interceptions from Tommy Rees and a fumble post-catch by T.J. Jones.)
Kelly hasn't won 207 games at the college level because he's unaware of statistical trends.
"*One or less, in terms of turnovers, that's been a win" said Kelly prior to a two-turnover performance in a loss at Stanford to conclude the regular season. "Number two, there's got to be a running game, an effective running game as part of it."
(*In addition to the mind-boggling rushing attempts statistic noted above, Notre Dame is 25-1 when it commits one turnover or fewer in a contest during the 51-game Kelly era. They're thus 13-12 when committing two or more.)
Will Youth Be Served ?How will the Irish – three starters down (RG, C, LG) up front -- attempt to breech a Rutgers defense that thrives on quickness up front?
"Size really isn't everything when it comes to (power at the point)," said junior offensive guard Conor Hanratty. "They're quick and they're very good with their schemes. It comes down to film study and seeing the tips that the defense gives you. You have to come off the ball with the confidence that you're going to make your block."
Kelly noted multiple times during bowl week that offensive line coach Harry Hiestand worked tirelessly with his (six available scholarship) offensive linemen on movement. They won't simply be able to fire off the ball and engage a block against a Rutgers defensive front led by sophomore Darius Hamilton.
Son of former New York Giants starting defensive lineman Keith Hamilton, the undersized sophomore finished with 10 tackles-for-loss in 2013.
"We've played a lot of great players and (Hamilton is) definitely in the ranks," said Hanratty.
The best of that lot was Pittsburgh's like-sized defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Notre Dame's front – then playing with starters Nick Martin at center and Chris Watt at left guard (both are out Saturday) – limited Donald to one assisted tackle and one QB hurry. Arizona State All-America candidate Will Sutton (6'0" 305 pounds) finished with just three stops, including one in punt coverage (a remarkable open-field stop of TJ Jones).
The pair combined to register 38 tackles-for-loss this season – none against the Irish.
Notre Dame's offensive line shows (from left to right): 5th-year senior Zack Martin (51 consecutive starts, a school-record), junior Conor Hanratty (3 career starts, all in November), junior Matt Hegarty (one career start, against Stanford, and one other game in which he played three quarters, BYU), true freshman Steve Elmer (three starts, all since October 26), and sophomore Ronnie Stanley (12 starts this fall).
The only scholarship lineman available off the bench is guard Mark Harrell, with Elmer able to back up both tackle spots (Harrell to guard) and Hanratty able to move to center, as could Harrell.
"One of the things we've emphasized is we need to run the ball, " said Hanratty. "There's no way around that."
Notre Dame's recent history supports Hanratty's claim. Rutgers' 2013 performance suggests downfield looks will be intermixed.
Air Raid?The muddle picture that was Notre Dame's offensive backfield came into focus late, with junior Cam McDaniel and freshman Tarean Folston combining for 93 of Notre Dame's final 121 carries. The duo hit for an aggregate 489 rushing yards and three scores over the final four contests (Irish running backs scored just nine touchdowns on the season, a number that includes TJ Jones' score against Pittsburgh) and will likely earn the lion's share of work Saturday as well.
Assuming numbers hold true and the pair can pound for 25-plus carries between them, junior "starter" George Atkinson should add 5-7 with classmate Amir Carlisle getting at least one touch as well, more pending the success of said carry.
That leaves more than 30 pass plays to round out Notre Dame's average of 64 offensive snaps per game.
With team MVP TJ Jones the constant, and junior DaVaris Daniels a mismatch for every Rutgers defensive back, the bulk of Rees' passing efforts will likely, and should be, focused on the productive starting pair. Who else might aid an aerial attack?
Three Rookies: True freshmen Will Fuller and Corey Robinson and redshirt-freshman C.J. Prosise have worked their way into the rotation on par with technical starting sophomore Chris Brown (look for a resurgent Brown in 2014 with the return of Everett Golson under center).
Fuller's downfield presence offers Rees a chance to stretch the field (his 16.4 yards per completion is the highest for an ND passer since Brady Quinn in 2005) while Robinson resurfaced early against the Cardinal, though he was rarely utilized after an opening series that included two third-down receptions: a fade route that moved the chains and crossing pattern completion (short of the end zone).
Prosise worked his way open in the first half but a Rees toss overshot the athlete by 10 yards.
From the trio, each should be expected to contribute vs. a struggling Scarlet Knights secondary – one could serve as the passing game's X-Factor.
Tight End Tandem: Juniors Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack slowed their five-game roll a bit as the season came to a close, with Koyack failing to catch a pass in the final two games – that after a career-best 4-catch, 76-yard effort at Pittsburgh – and Niklas notching just three grabs combined vs BYU and Stanford.
The Cougars and Cardinal (especially) boasted a pass rush capable of dominating a contest. Niklas and/or Koyack were thus needed as extra pass protectors, especially as Notre Dame's starting offensive linemen fell by the wayside. Ranked 25th nationally in sacks per game, Rutgers can get after the quarterback as well.
Look for Rees to use his perimeter prospects -- Fuller, Robinson, and/or Prosise and Brown – more often than the tight end tandem in Yankee Stadium.
Rutgers D: capable, but eminently beatableAs noted but a member of our Football Forum, a defense that can stop the run consistently often therefore is the victim of abundant passing yards. Rutgers' ranking of 120 (out of 123 FBS teams) is likely less important than its similarly low defensive *pass efficiency efforts this fall (103rd).
(*Pass Efficiency defense combines a team's efforts in four categories, each more telling than passing yards allowed. They are: yards per pass attempt, pass completions per pass attempt, touchdowns per pass attempt and interceptions per pass attempt.)
Notre Dame's offense might not be able to pound the ball 40-plus times into the Rutgers front and come out with three-plus touchdowns, but it has to find room to run for extended stretches, especially on a 40-degree winter afternoon. (Though Saturday's weather forecast in Manhattan looks far more comfortable for an outdoor football game – and open air press box, for that matter – than does Sunday's.)
Rutgers allowed 49 points to pass-happy Houston (25th ranked passing attack, 93rd rushing), 51 to Cincinnati and the nation's 15th-ranked passing offense, and 49 to Central Florida, the 27th-best. All since late October. (The Scarlet Knights allowed 52 points to both Fresno State and SMU earlier this season as well.)
With 60 percent of its starting offensive line out, and an untenable backup quarterback situation, it seems unlikely Notre Dame will throw caution to the wind and air it out for 60 minutes as they did at Air Force, the team's best passing afternoon of the season against a team that attempted to square up the Irish receivers man-to-man.
But Rutgers has proven it cannot stop the pass and that it can handle the run.
Kelly is unlikely to ignore either of those realities Saturday afternoon.