At First Glance

O'Malley's game notebook presents a handful of game balls, reviews the contest's decisive moments, and offers numbers of note in Saturday's 29-16 victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Offensive MVP -- Zack Martin

The award is for Saturday only, but it could as easily be given for 2013 and the four-season Brian Kelly era to date.

"He's not only the best offensive linemen I've ever coached -- and I've coached some great ones," said head coach Brian Kelly offering 49ers All-Pro tackle Joe Staley as an example. "In terms of his play it's one thing, but he's had three first-time starters with him for most of the year, and now four.

"Very rarely do you have that -- I call it the Larry Bird effect -- where an offensive linemen can make people better around him. He does that. He's an outstanding and a unique player."

Martin and the Irish offensive line kept quarterback Tommy Rees sack-free despite 47 pass attempts and paved away for a running game that produced 175 yards and two touchdowns vs. the nation's fourth-best rush defense.

"I just want to be remembered as a hard-working guy and a guy that came to work every day," said Martin when informed of Kelly's compliment. "As a leader, someone that pushed the group to a higher level. I think I was able to do that the last two season's especially. (Offensive Line) Coach (Harry) Hiestand saw that in me and saw the potential in me. I'm forever grateful to him and I don't know if I'll ever have another coach like him in my life."

Martin played and started the entire 52-game Kelly era to date, both numbers a record for any player in program history.

Offensive Game Balls

An up-tempo offense found players to build upon entering 2014 in Saturday's win, notably sophomore Chris Brown, he of the 2013 disappearing act over the season's final 10 regular season contests.

Brown Saturday caught five passes, all for first down yardage including a pair of third-down conversions on what became a 15-play, 71-yard drive that gave Notre Dame a 16-13 lead it would never relinquish.

The lanky 6'2" speedster had secured just four passes over his team's previous 10 outings after opening the season with a pair of three-catch efforts vs. Temple and Michigan.

"I thought Chris Brown was a building block for 2014 with the balls he caught today, the action he got," said Kelly of Brown among a list of several that included the offensive line, freshman runner Tarean Folston and both tight ends.

Each of Brown's five receptions occurred with his back to the defense, a far cry from his repetitive downside forays as a true freshman in 2012.

Backfield Tandem and Returning Weapons: As expected prior to a pre-game suspension of junior George Atkinson, Notre Dame relied on its late-season rushing tandem of junior Cam McDaniel and freshman Tarean Folston to do the heavy lifting Saturday in the Bronx.

McDaniel led the Irish with 80 yards on 17 carries while Folston added 73 with the same, plus a touchdown that gave his squad a 26-16 lead with 3:38 remaining, effectively sealing the contest.

Neither gained more than 13 yards (McDaniel) rushing on a slippery Yankee Stadium turf.

"It was like playing football on a baseball field," said junior Troy Niklas. "You can definitely tell that field was meant for metal cleats so that was little difficult in some patches, which was nice."

Niklas caught four passes for a team-best 76 yards. He had a chacne at an early touchdown but ended up on the ground on a 3rd and 4 pass from Rees that sailed between him and T.J. Jones. "That was intended for me, I slipped pretty bad," he said.

(Niklas declined to comment on the grade he received from the NFL Advisory board regarding his draft status.)

Jones tied Brown for the team lead with five receptions, his going for 66 yards while adding four rushes for 16 yards, an 8-yard rushing score the highlight of his uneven day.

Jones slipped more than once, one en route to a would-be rushing score. He also played through a severe shoulder sprain and suffered a rare end zone drop on an accurate third-down pass from Rees.

"He had a second-degree shoulder sprain. He was treated during the game and he continued to play with a second-degree shoulder sprain," said Kelly of Jones. "It probably contributed to the drop in the end zone. The ball was thrown a little behind him but he normally makes that catch. He was in a lot of pain. He's probably going to be limited for the next 3-4 weeks."

Said Kelly of the slippery surface, "It was hard. There was a hard frost on it. Then the sun began to loosen it up. So there were some areas that were a bit slick."

The Irish head coach then added (we can assume wit tongue planted firmly in-cheek), "We've played in worse conditions than that. I'm not going to get into that. We've played in worse conditions is all I can say."

Defensive MVP -- Keivarae Russell

After a rough outing at Michigan and to a lesser extent throughout September, the Notre Dame sophomore took a major step forward as a second-year starter, finishing the season with his best game and easily ranking as the team's best defensive back through 2013.

"I thought KeiVarae Russell was outstanding today," said Kelly. "On body (man-to-man) -- how many pass break-ups (three total) did he have where he was in great coverage? A lot of really good things we can take and build off of for 2014."

In addition to two pass breakups vs. future NFL Draft pick, 6'6" Scarlet Knights wideout Brandon Coleman on corner routes (one deep in Irish territory, one in the end zone), Russell intercepted his first pass of the season, securing a low throw on a halfback pass attempt at the Rutgers goal line.

"I was looking at No. 17 (Coleman), I was waiting to see where he was going to go," said Russell of reading the trick play from the outset. "The running back (Justin Goodwin) wasn't running too hard and he didn't' have the ball covered. When a running back tries to get to the outside, he's going to have the ball covered. So when he was kind of trotting off the line, I knew he was going to pass it."

Russell helped shut down Coleman after the latter burned senior captain Bennett Jackson for a 51-yard go route, a short corner touchdown, and later, a deep ball in which Jackson wisely interfered instead of giving up what would have been at minimum 25 yards, potentially a 75-yard score to start the second stanza.

"This year, they haven't been giving me a lot of shots," said Russell of recent frustrations. "Let's see what you can do when they're testing you. I think I showed the country I think I can play man-to-man with the best of them.

"When he (Coleman) came to my side, I got really excited, I'm not going to lie. I was telling him the whole day, 'I'm sorry, you're not going to get too much on my side. I like to talk a little bit out there.'"

Defensive Game Balls

Two linebackers stood out with freshman Jaylon Smith recording six solo stops -- the bulk of which in one-on-one opportunities in open space -- and 5th-year senior Dan Fox capping his career with a game-clinching interception, his second of 2013 and of his 51-game, 36-start Irish career.

Fox added a pass defensed and five tackles including consecutive tackles in goal-to-go situations with Rutgers threatening inside the Irish four-yard line.

"It's something unforgettable to get an interception in my last game at Notre Dame," said Fox who lost his starting job in mid-September to Jarrett Grace before regaining his spot when Grace broke his leg on October 5 vs. Arizona State. "I think it comes from the love of the University and obviously my body (knee) was feeling a lot better. Those two things were key to my (resurgent) play."

Notre Dame's front seven failed to contain Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd for most of the opening half as the slippery triggerman escaped pressure for first down gains of 19, 7, and 11 yards with the game still close.

Junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt concluded the contest -- and potentially his Irish playing career -- with a shared sack and full sack of Dodd to finish with 23 total, good for 2nd on the program's all-time list behind Justin Tuck (24.5).

"He'll now focus on making that decision," said Kelly of Tuitt's choice between a senior season in South Bend and the NFL Draft. "We've had a couple of conversations and he knows all the information. My job is to provide him with all the information about the decision he has to make and I'm pretty sure he'll make that decision very, very soon."

Special Teams MVP: Kyle Brindza, by necessity

The junior set a program bowl record with five successful field goals including a 49-yard boot with 2:28 remaining to provide the game's final margin, 29-16. It was Brindza's second game hitting five of six field goals, the first coming last season in the Los Angeles Coliseum in a 22-13 win over USC that sent the Irish to the BCS Championship.

"The fourth quarter is what I love. That's pretty much a kicker's job," said Brindza of his to-date perfect career efforts as a fourth quarter field goal kicker with the game in doubt (14 for 14). "My favorite athlete is (former New York Yankees pitcher Mariano) Rivera, the reason why is he's a closer. We have a saying on this team, 'Count on Me.' Coach Kelly said, 'Can you make this, I said, I got this. You can count on me.'"

Brindza also connected on field goals from 21, 38, 26, and 25 yards -- three of which were the direct result of Notre Dame's inability to score touchdowns in goal-to-go situations.

The Irish entered the contest ranked 100th in red zone efficiency, punching it into the end zone in just 22 of 40 opportunities (plus 9 field goals). They managed two touchdowns in five trips vs. the Scarlet Knights.

"Our red zone offense today was simply catching the football. We had great looks. Exactly what we wanted," said Kelly of the offense's repeated misses in close. "So I'm really happy with what we did today in the red zone, we just didn't execute. We need to throw it and catch it down there. When we needed to run it in, we were able to run the ball in.

"Schematically, I know what we want to do down there, we just have to be executing better in that area. And we will. We know what we need to do down there. We need to continue to get better as a group, individually, collectively, but I feel better knowing what needs to happen down there."


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