Solid start to Irish season

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

Before Tommy Rees was finished nudging his rebirth as Notre Dame’s No. 1 quarterback option into a record-setting day, the cyber hyperbole machine was already in motion.

Yes, by the middle of the third quarter of 14th-ranked Notre Dame’s 28-6 subduing of plucky Temple in Saturday’s sweltering football season opener, a Tommy Rees For Heisman account — aptly and uncomplicatedly dubbed @TommyReesForHeisman — had been born on Twitter.

Suspiciously, its first follower was Rees’ buddy and former Irish wide receiver Robby Toma. By the time the coach Brian Kelly had secured career victory 200, the following on the Rees fan account had swelled to 184.

The number of people Rees impressed in 80,795-seat Notre Dame Stadium, including Temple first-year coach Matt Rhule, was exponential. Not that it was conclusive and not that it was necessarily Heisman-esque, but Notre Dame’s most intriguing question mark for 2013 needed to make a respectable first impression, and the senior, in his 19th career start, far exceeded that.

His 16-of-23 passing for a career-high 346 yards with three TDs and zero interceptions translates to a 238.97 pass-efficiency rating. That’s more than 100 points above his career mark coming in and more than double his rating for each of his previous five starts — the three at the end of 2011 that eventually led to his demotion and two last season (a cameo against Miami and an injury-replacement start against BYU).

“Obviously a lot of the questions coming in (were) could we push the ball down the field?” Kelly remarked. “I think we answered a lot of those questions right away with his (Rees’) ability to push the ball down the field. I thought his patience was better, and it will continue to get better. So I was pleased with his performance, and he knows he can play better.”

In fact, the room-for-improvement part was a theme during Rees’ feel-good press conference after the game.

“I think it starts with me,” Rees said. “There are a couple of throws I want back and a couple of opportunities we didn’t take advantage of.”

But on a day when the two standout predecessors, whose shadows Rees has lived in for 3+ seasons, hit the NFL waiver wire — Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen and Seattle’s Brady Quinn — there was much more to like than pick at for Rees, including the longest pass play of his career.

That was a 66-yarder for a touchdown to tight end Troy Niklas 43 seconds ahead of halftime and a score that put the Irish (1-0) up 21-6 and allowed them to keep playing largely vanilla on both sides of the ball and keeping its next opponent, Michigan (1-0), guessing a bit.

Granted Niklas covered more of the 66 yards with his legs than Rees did with his arm. The same was true on a 51-yarder earlier in the first half to Saturday’s receiving star TJ Jones (six catches for a career-high 138 yards). But Rees’ first two TDs were long throws to DaVaris Daniels (each 32-yard pass plays) for the junior’s first two scores of his career.

It was just the second of 22 games in Rees’ career in which he threw more than 10 passes that his longest pass play in a game was longer than 40 yards.

Perhaps the most significant number for Rees, given his turnover-prone past, was zero. Rees’ zero interceptions and ND’s overall zero turnovers pushed Kelly to 11-0 at ND when the team went turnover-free and to 120-12 in his career (and 17-1 with the Irish) when his teams win the turnover battle.

“We had hoped he’d throw the ball to us once and twice, and he didn’t,” Rhule said. “He maybe had one overthrow. But he didn’t give us any throws.

“He’s a poised player. He understands their system. Some of our guys, we were showing the blitz, and he checked (out of a play). So he’s obviously well-coached in that system. He’s a really smart, tough football player. You can tell.”

So was Rees’ counterpart, junior Connor Reilly, in his first collegiate start. Formerly Temple’s only two-sport athlete, Reilly gave up baseball when he beat out two former starters last spring.

He ended up accounting for 293 of Temple’s surprising total of 362 total yards — more than all but Oklahoma and Alabama amassed against the Manti Te’o-led Irish unit last season. Sixty-five of those yards came on scrambles that kept Owl drives alive and the final score from getting more lopsided.

“It was never, in my mind, that we were in a situation where we were in trouble,” said Kelly, who kept ND’s pressure and blitzes dialed down for the most part.

Temple junior Kenny Harper accounted for the lone score for the Owls (0-1), but it was how he did it that opened eyes. His one-yard TD run late in the first half was just the 14th rushing touchdown ND has given up in its past 31 games, the fewest of any FBS team in that stretch.

Last season, it was game 8 (vs. Oklahoma) before the Irish defense yielded its first rushing TD of the season.

“I would say (the defense) was good, but we can get a lot better,” said Irish senior linebacker Dan Fox, who led the Irish with a career-high 10 tackles. “Just personally I was thinking about all the things I could have done better. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Irish fit a lot of new pieces into their 2013 debut — 10 true freshmen and six others who made their first appearances in a Notre Dame uniform.

Perhaps the most impressive of them was USC transfer running back Amir Carlisle, whose last carries in a game had come in a 40-17 Trojan victory over Washington on Nov. 12, 2011.

Carlisle amassed 108 rushing yards during his brief and injury-filled USC career. He almost had half that many on Notre Dame’s first offensive play from scrimmage Saturday, a 45-yard outside run on a play Rees’ had checked into.

He finished with a team-high 68 yards on seven carries on a day in which five Irish running backs touched the ball at least twice and no more than junior Cam McDaniel’s 12 carries.

“It was exhilarating,” Carlisle said, “It’s been a long time, and just to be back on the field with my brothers battling, it was a great feeling. I just give God all the glory, and it was just great we pulled off the win today.”

Kelly admitted there’s plenty of remixing and tweaking to do this week for Michigan, a game if the Irish can prevail in would pull them into a virtual tie for major college football’s winningest program (by percentage) — a distinction that slipped away from them nine seasons ago.

“Openers are probably, for coaches, the most difficult, because the preparation and the planning,” Kelly said. “You don’t know what to expect, really. I mean, we can talk about our team. We can think that we know about our team, but you really don’t until they get out there and play.

“We got a chance to find out a little bit about our football team today, and we won. Anytime you can win in an opener, you can learn so much more about your football team.”

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) airs one out during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER