NEW YORK -- Nobody's mistaking Notre Dame's 2013 season for a success. But, to some extent, beating Rutgers and garnering a ninth victory does carry some significance heading into the offseason.
"We've seen eight wins in our program," coach Brian Kelly said Friday at Yankee Stadium. "We've seen eight, we've seen 12. Nine is one that looks better for us."
It's stating the obvious, sure, but Notre Dame has won eight games in two of Kelly's three full seasons in South Bend. While 2012's 12-1 record will still look like an aberration, a ninth win will at least skew the best fit line a little higher.
[Top 13 of 2013: Notre Dame crushed in BCS Championship game]
That's a tertiary motivation for Kelly, though. His mantra throughout December has been to send Notre Dame's senior class out with a win, and then secondary to that to get some of the younger Irish players a chance to grow.
Still, motivation is a lot harder to come by for a non-BCS, non-New Year's bowl that kicks off at 11 a.m. (CT). And when the opponent is Rutgers -- a 6-6 team Notre Dame's tried to pump up to the media, to no avail -- finding the will to win isn't a given.
As tight end Troy Niklas put it, in reference to Notre Dame's exceedingly difficult 2014 slate of games: "I think it's better when there's a tough schedule because when you play a bad team, you just have no motivation that week to really practice hard or really try. You still want to do well in the game, but it's just not as fun when you know it's not going to be a good competition."
Rutgers, on paper, doesn't provide that level of good competition.
None of the Scarlet Knights' six victories came against bowl-eligible teams, and it took a win over lowly South Florida in the final week of the season for them to get that sixth win. On their resume is an 11-point loss to UConn and blowout defeats to Houston, Cincinnati and USF.
Statistically, Rutgers has the fourth-worst pass defense in the country and a bottom-third offense by total yards per game. No matter how much Notre Dame espoused the virtues of Rutgers' win over an SEC school (3-9 Arkansas), the Scarlet Knights are one of the worst bowl teams in the nation.
But that's where the trap lies for Notre Dame. The Irish nearly lost to Purdue (which went 1-11), then suffered an ugly, embarrassing defeat at Pitt in early November. Players know they'll get their opponent's best shot, and those kind of "B" efforts can lead to losses.
It's telling, though, that Kelly had to answer multiple questions about motivation during his joint press conference with Rutgers coach Kyle Flood on Friday. And it'll be quickly apparent on Saturday if a senior sendoff, early start on 2014 and a nine-win goal provide enough incentive for the Irish.
"We're competitive," Kelly said. "The old phrase, a game worth playing is a game worth winning. So that's where we start this."