Notre Dame football: Pittsburgh tests Rees' toughness
To understand how far quarterback Tommy Rees has come in the first four games of the Notre Dame football season, it's important to understand where he started.
Heading into the second half of Saturday's 15-12 victory over Pitt, doubt was easy. Nine turnovers in 12 quarters. Probably as many bad decisions as turnovers. He'd done little to suggest success was imminent.
His immediate situation wasn't dire - leading 7-6, though with the knowledge that he had done little to help the cause.
Yet, he remained unfazed.
"In the first half (against Pitt), I made some mistakes that stopped some drives and put a kind of a halt to some of our offensive momentum," Rees said, referring primarily to a fumble and interception. "I just wanted to come out, play well in the second half. I knew the guys were counting on me. It's time for me to step up and make some plays for our offense."
"The end of the half, he did some really good things, in terms of throwing the football," said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.
Rees was 5-of-10 for 53 yards in a drive at the end of the half that culminated in a missed field goal.
"He had to step up. He knows what's going on out there," Kelly said.
Throughout the game, Rees took a physical pounding. Two sacks. Five hurries. Still, he kept getting up.
"You have to bounce back up," Rees said. "The offense is counting on you to bounce back up. I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt. At that point of the game, it was so critical, I had to get back up and keep playing."
A leader always gets up - no matter the pain.
He kept getting up, until he knocked the Panthers down. Eighty-five yards. Eleven plays. Completing 8-of-8 passes for 74 yards. Touchdown Tyler Eifert. Irish win.
"I stayed within the offense," Rees said, downplaying the heroics of the final drive. "The coaches did a good job of calling plays we were comfortable with. It's a critical point of the game. We knew we needed a touchdown."
Rees completed 24 of 41 passes for 216 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He posted those numbers with one receiver tied behind his back, so to speak.
Pitt made the decision to take receiver Michael Floyd out of the equation, and dare someone else to pick up the slack. Floyd caught four passes for 27 yards, but only one after Notre Dame's first series of the game. Eifert (eight catches, 75 yards) and Theo Riddick (six, 52) were the most popular targets.
"They did a lot of stuff to take away Mike," Rees said. "We had to make a lot of adjustments. At the end of the first half, coming into the second. ... They always added an extra hat to his side. If there was someone down, press coverage, they'd have safety help. They'd spin a safety down to take away some of the quick throws we had to him. Having him out there opens up things for everyone else.
"You want to get (Floyd) the ball as much as possible. When you can't, you have to look for someone else. If they're going to double-team Mike, we've got some other weapons."
Kelly recognized the significance of Rees' ability to put together the game-winning drive.
"Growing up and seeing some things (helped make that drive possible)," Kelly said. "There were some new looks out there for him that he hadn't seen before. We had to adjust a lot with him. After he sees it, he gets much more comfortable. You could see his comfort level in that last drive."
So, is the guy who struggled in the second half against South Florida, and the guy who engineered the winning drive Saturday, related? Maybe distant cousins.
"Gaining experience with every game, I'm very different," Rees said. "It's something that you have to keep developing and moving forward."
The process can be frustrating at times. Mistakes still happen. Bonehead decisions still crop up.
But signs of progress can quantify the growth and maturity.
Staff writer Al Lesar: