Tommy who? Rees in relief leads Notre Dame past Purdue 20-17

By Tom O'Toole

Going into the game with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as 14-1/2 point dogs, Purdue coach Danny Hope figured he had only one hope to win Saturday. Stymie the Irish ground game, and make inexperienced sophomore quarterback Everett Golson beat them through the air. Hope accomplished both goals, yet still lost a last-second 20-17 decision to the Irish, thanks to some passing heroics–not by Golson, but long-lost back-up Tommy Rees.

Actually, Golson threw (21-31-289) for a lot of yards, just not enough when it counted. For example, the Irish gained over a hundred yards, mostly through the air, on a seven-minute first quarter drive. Unfortunately, they lost twenty yards on penalties, and after a Golson sack, ended up coming up empty on a missed 40-yard field goal–a field goal kicked so wide left, I could only assume sitting some seventy rows up in the opposite end zone that the wrong player had come in as kicker.

As it turns out, I was half right; Kyle Brindza had been forced into duty after starting kicker Nick Tausch suffered an injury. Like Rees, Brindza would later redeem himself, but more on that later. The Irish finally scored on a three-yard scamper by Golson to take a 7-0 lead, only to have Purdue, aided by a long kick return and a 4th and 4 conversion, tie the game and make the score 7-7 at halftime.

After a three and out by Purdue to start the third quarter, Golson came out firing. He led a 10-play, 65-yard Irish drive, featuring two highlight catches (for 47 yds.) by Tyler Eifert, and capped by a 3-yard TD strike to T.J. Jones making it 14-7. And when Stephon Tuitt (2 sacks) hurried Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush, and ND’s Bennett Jackson intercepted his pass and brought it back to the Purdue 20, the Irish fans went wild, figuring another trip to paydirt would put the game away. Instead, Golson got cautious and threw the ball away on third down, but at least Brindza made the short 32-yard kick, and the Irish were up by ten.

But by now, the Purdue defense had made its adjustments, and Golson showed in his second start that he was not (yet) Payton Manning. He proved incapable of both running the play clock down to a few seconds and changing the play at the line of scrimmage, instead blowing all his timeouts early and leaving himself at Purdue’s mercy. After a couple of sacks, Golson started to play not to lose rather than trying to win, and as often occurs in this situation, bad things happened. Golson fumbled at his own 15, and when Purdue completed its third fourth-down conversion of the day with a 15-yard TD pass, the score was tied with just over two minutes to play.

Enter “the Closer.”

After the game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly would cover all his bases, first saying Rees entered because Golson hurt his hand on the fumble, then claiming Tommy was better at the two-minute drill, later declaring that Golson was still the starter next week. Whether the answer was A, B, C, or all of the above, Rees turned the boos to cheers not once but thrice in an improbable Irish comeback. The jeers first surfaced on third and six when Rees tried to call a time out, then barely got the play off before the 30-second clock expired, then barely escaped getting sacked while lofting a lame duck–that was caught by John Goodman barely before he went out of bounds for a 10-yard first down!

Two more inept Rees tosses followed, and on third and ten the crowd booed Rees again, only to witness an incredible 21-yard crossing completion to Robbie Toma. Finally, after Theo Riddick was stuffed on a run, the crowd booed the second-down play selection of another handoff–until Riddick, who was held to 42 yards rushing up until this point, burst up the middle for eleven, and when the substitute kicker Brindza made the short field goal to complete the substitute quarterback’s “winning ugly” drive, the fans finally embraced Rees.

After the game, Kelly refused to let Golson or Rees answer questions, allowing only two players, linebacker Manti Te’o and offensive lineman Zack Martin to address the press. “I was a bit surprised,” said Te’o of the booing. “But I think Tommy knew it didn’t really matter because he knew what was most important is the guys out there on the field, and the guys on the sideline trusted him and had confidence in his ability to make plays.”

“I don’t agree with that at all,” replied Martin, adding, “A guy like Tommy, it just fuels his fire. He’s been through a lot. I’m so proud of him and so happy for him that he was able to answer the bell today and lead us down the field.”

Even with the late game heroics, more questions were raised than answered. Despite four sacks and great pressure by the Irish front four, poor tackling and suspect pass coverage allowed Purdue to nearly pull the upset. Meanwhile, Kelly claims there is no “quarterback controversy,” but he can hardly be confident that Golson can run his complex, changing-the-call offense amidst the raucous hostile crowd at Michigan State. Kelly also has six new Irish injuries to deal with, including a concussion suffered by birthday-boy Eifert.

And speaking of birthdays, many of my religious Irish friends/fans claimed that Our Lady helped the Irish out (more than usual) Saturday as it was also Her birthday. If so, does this spell doom for the Irish next Saturday, when Notre Dame plays the Spartans on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows?

These are tough questions, questions only Kelly, with the help of his often baffled but always battling team, can answer. Still, as tough as those questions are, the veterans know that they are a lot easier to answer when you are 2-0 than when you are 0-2.

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