SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The placard for the BCS Championship remained on Notre Dame's schedule in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, a forgotten relic of the team's past goals.
Notre Dame's aspirations got progressively smaller as the season went on. After a loss to Michigan, the goal became playing for a BCS bowl. A disappointing loss to Pitt dashed those, relegating Notre Dame's bowl out of the realm of national importance.
The goal, now that Notre Dame will face Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl Dec. 28 at Yankee Stadium, becomes sending the program's senior class off with a ninth win on the season. It's still a goal, and Notre Dame players said it's more than enough to motivate them throughout December.
"Although that's not our goal coming into the season, a nine-win season with the guys we play isn't half-bad," offensive lineman Zack Martin said. "It's the last time we're going to play together. This team, you heard it all season from guys, this is a very close team, and I know everyone wants to go out with a victory."
Notre Dame's senior class initially hoped for its last go-around to be somewhere warm, a spot like San Diego where they could get away from an already-harsh South Bend winter. Notre Dame was very much interested in the Poinsettia Bowl, though coach Brian Kelly said Northern Illinois' loss in the MAC Championship eliminated that opportunity. (The first report of Notre Dame accepting a Pinstripe Bowl bid came before the Poinsettia Bowl kicked off, for what it's worth.)
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The Hawaii Bowl was in the mix, too, though Notre Dame's exam schedule meant the team's stay in Honolulu would've been short with little free time included.
From just about every standpoint but the weather, the Pinstripe Bowl made sense. Players were elated when shown the bowl gifts they'd receive, and the $2 million payout suits Notre Dame's bottom line a lot better.
So eventually, players began to warm up to the Pinstripe Bowl -- no pun intended. The experience this senior class had at Yankee Stadium in 2010, when Notre Dame played Army, certainly helped.
"Your jaw drops," quarterback Tommy Rees, who had Derek Jeter's locker for the game in 2010, said. "It's an incredible atmosphere, obviously to be Yankee Stadium but to be where the Yankees are and that organization and the tradition they have, it's a special place to be."
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Wide receiver T.J. Jones chimed in: "It's definitely an experience that I want some of the guys who haven't experienced it with me to experience themselves."
Rutgers, on paper, isn't exactly a high-quality opponent for Notre Dame. The Scarlet Knights went 6-6; with the combined record of the teams they beat 17-55. While Kelly championed Rutgers' wins over Arkansas (the second-worst, if not worst, team in the SEC) and close losses to Fresno State (in overtime) and Louisville (by 14 points), there's very little that's impressive about Notre Dame's opponent.
"If we don't play well they'll beat us," Kelly said. "We got everything to lose. We want to win the football game."
Even if, in the grand scheme of things, whether Notre Dame wins or not might not matter too much.