Notre Dame football: Ignoring critics, Rees helps Irish bounce back

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

No doubt about it. Tommy Rees can take a hit.

Leading up to Saturday night's 37-34 win over Arizona State, Twitterverse delivered enough shots to the psyche of the quarterback of the Notre Dame football team to leave him battered and bruised.

But not beaten.

Following the loss to Oklahoma, ill will was wished upon the Irish senior from all corners of the globe.

Thick skin and short memory are as important to an Irish signal-caller as a quick release and good decision-making.

For the most part, Rees had all those against the Sun Devils.

Sure, there were three passes that could have been intercepted, but weren't. Then, there was the one that was — and was returned 37 yards for a touchdown.

But Rees did much more good than bad with the world watching his every move — and second-guessing each of his decisions.

How did he handle such a tough week?

"I don't even know what you're talking about — no, I'm just kidding," Rees said, able to joke about the situation afterward. "Being a quarterback at Notre Dame, it's one of the things that you kind of sign up for. But for me, I rely on my teammates first, coaches, family, the people that I care about, and I care about what they think. For me, it's just staying focused and staying within the people that matter.

"It wasn't all that tough. I tried not to pay attention to all the outside. Really just focused on what's going on within the program within my teammates, my coaches, family and that's who I play for. Really just stayed positive with them and just like another week for me. I have to get prepared and get ready to lead this team to victory."

Without a viable running game through most of Saturday’s contest, Rees still completed 17 of 38 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn't sacked all night, and he kept drive-impacting mistakes to a minimum.

After a miserable first quarter in which he accounted for 38 yards, Rees completed nine passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns as the Irish led 14-13 at the break.

"Tommy chose not to pay attention to a lot of the criticisms," said Irish receiver/friend TJ Jones. "He put that to the side, brushed it off. We supported him; believed in him."

So, will Saturday night's performance quiet Rees' "Twitics" once and for all?

"No, they will still be there," predicted Irish coach Brian Kelly.

The bond between Rees and Jones was quite evident. The comfort level the two shared was reflected in Jones' eight catches for 135 yards and an eight-yard TD reception.

"It's a great chemistry," Jones said. "We lived together for 2½ years. We enrolled early together. Not only on the field, but off the field, there's a lot of chemistry together that helps us."

"Tommy and TJ have come through this program together," Kelly said. "Whereas, sometimes we misfire with some of the other younger receivers — and I think you probably saw that at times — (Rees) and TJ Jones are right on the same page.

"When he's in trouble, he's looking for TJ Jones."

"I know if I was a quarterback, I'd be looking for (Jones)," said Irish running back Cam McDaniel.

"Oh, man, I'm so happy for TJ," Rees said. "He and I came in together four years ago. You can't say enough about how the kid has grown since he's been here.

"You know, first of all, tremendous player; but the way he's grown off the field; really being the leader, and everything he's gone through; had to grow up fast for his family. I'm so happy for him and all the success. It's not a surprise; he's a hard-working and very talented player."

Rees is genuine. He can't sugar-coat any situation because the rest of the world is going to keep him honest.

He is the quarterback at Notre Dame, you know.

Even though the Irish converted on just 4 of 15 third-down plays, they executed a game plan that extended drives and kept Arizona State's high-powered attack off the field — especially in the first half. Thanks to a tone-setting Irish offensive march of more than 8 minutes to start the game — although it ended in a shanked field goal — the Sun Devils had just four possessions in the first 30 minutes.

"Just try to sustain some drives," Rees said of the Notre Dame plan. "We knew Arizona State had a really good offense and could put up some points. So limiting their opportunities to go out there and score ultimately helps our defense with ball control.

"Obviously, running the ball helps with the clock and all that, but just sustaining drives. When you've got third-and-manageables, just making sure that you convert, which I thought we did a good job of, keeping their high-powered offense off the field."

After tossing the interception that Osahon Irabor returned for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Rees had the gumption to complete 2 of 6 passes (both completions to Jones) for 27 yards, keeping enough offense alive to ice the victory.

"It's going to happen," Rees said of the blunder. "Obviously, you want to limit those mistakes and have got to take accountability for that. But I've got a hundred of my teammates and brothers counting on me, and there's never a moment to get down. Got to get right back out there and find a way to move the ball on the field, which we did."

Forget Twitter. Dust off the frustration and get back on the horse.

Takes a tough guy to get it done.

Squibs

•Sunday afternoon Kelly said linebacker Jarrett Grace underwent surgery to have a rod inserted in his leg to stabilize his broken tibia. Kelly said team physician Brian Ratigan and the Dallas Cowboys team physician performed the surgery. Grace is scheduled to stay in Dallas a couple of days and then return to South Bend.

•Kendall Moore is expected to be the "next man in" in place of Grace. Joe Schmidt, who was a walk-on for two years until getting a scholarship this season, and freshman Michael Deeb will also be considered.

•Daniel Smith's Notre Dame career ended with a broken ankle Saturday night. Kelly said the receiver from Clay High is slated for surgery once the swelling goes down.

•The Notre Dame-ASU game (7:30-11:30 p.m. EDT) delivered a 2.5 overnight, the best ever for a Shamrock Series game and up 4 percent vs. last year's primetime Shamrock Series matchup (Miami, 2.4).

In primetime (8-11 p.m.), ND-ASU delivered a 2.4 overnight, the best NBC Saturday night overnight since the Stanley Cup on June 22.

Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees lines up to take a snap during the Shamrock Series game against Arizona State on Saturday, October 5, 2013, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN