Notre Dame football: Rees missing defining moment

Al Lesar

South Bend Tribune

Quarterbacks are measured by more than just statistics.

Put Tommy Rees' Notre Dame football career right up there with Ron Powlus' and Jimmy Clausen's.

Statistically productive, but still lacking.

Scan the charts of all-time leaders and Rees' impact is obvious: Among the top four (add in Brady Quinn to that group, but his tenure yielded a few more significant wins) in just about every quarterback career category.

Yet, there's something missing: A defining moment.

Season-changing opportunities are rare. The closest Rees has come to similar situations were relief appearances against Michigan and Purdue last year. Were it not for Rees bailing out Everett Golson, the BCS run would not have happened.

The senior could have had a moment of his own Saturday night at Pittsburgh. The Irish were on his shoulders and the season was on the line. Tied at the start of the fourth quarter, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly scuttled the running game for some reason and put all his chips on Rees.

The roll of the dice came up snake eyes. Busted.

Rees completed four of his first six fourth-quarter passes (for 48 yards), but the two that weren't completed to Irish receivers fell into the hands of Pitt defenders.

The first, an end zone pick that could have been made by any of three defenders draping receiver Chris Brown, finished Notre Dame's last legitimate scoring try.

"My fault. Bad decision and a bad throw," Rees said. "I've gotta be smarter than that. I've gotta get us out of a play.

"That's a play that we've gotta get out of at the line of scrimmage. I've got to recognize what's going on and be better than that — trying to make something happen when there's nothing there. When they have a good defense against our call, I've gotta get us out of a play that's not great."

The second, two ND offensive plays after the first, gave Pitt the ball at the Irish 5-yard line and set up the game-winning TD.

"Obviously, it's a turnover issue," Rees said. "I take accountability for that. When you put your defense in compromising positions like that, it's hard for your defense to make stops.

"It starts with me and it starts with our senior leaders. We've got to come back better. There's definitely little things we didn't do to win games."

Little things? Worry about the big things — like taking care of the football — before sweating the little things.

Now trailing 28-21 with 9:36 to play, Rees hadn't exhausted his opportunity. It was just a little tougher now.

Still, he came up empty again. He completed just three of his final 10 passes for 29 yards. He also had a costly intentional grounding penalty on a second-and-five snap from the Pitt 33 with about 3 minutes left in the game.

"Our mantra is, 'You can't start winning 'til you stop losing,'" Kelly said. "We did things tonight that caused losing."

Probably the biggest disappointment is the harsh reality that the Irish of the Kelly era aren't beyond losing games to teams like Pitt. After the way they dispatched Air Force a couple weeks ago, the express seemed to be rolling like it was under Lou Holtz — beating the teams that are supposed to be beaten, and competing with the others.

The narrow escape from Navy and the loss to Pitt were giant steps backward.

Notre Dame has a bye week to stew about the frustration now that any hope for a BCS opportunity has ended.

"We play for each other," Rees said. "We play for our pride. As seniors, we've only got a couple games left. We have to rally as a group and get ready to play."

And ... the plan?

"Stay together," Rees said. "We've still got two games left. We have to stay unified as a team; find a way to have a great week of practice. (The seniors) have to stay positive, stay upbeat. The rest of the guys are going to be looking at us. We have to keep moving forward.

"My full focus is on the guys in the locker room; playing for them. It's about my brothers, the guys I grind it out with."

"We've won a lot of games the last couple years," Kelly said. "I've been preparing my football teams for 23 years. There won't be any changes as to how we prepare. It's execution. It's playing the game and coaching the game. We didn't do a very good job playing or coaching."

Rees' most recent flop doesn't alter the suggestion that he is this team's most valuable player. Given the body of work over 10 games, he would still be the most difficult player to replace.

He just wasn't up to the challenge of a defining moment.

Stanford info

The final piece of Notre Dame’s 2013 football schedule fell into place Monday, when it was announced the regular-season finale at Stanford has been assigned a 7 p.m. kickoff (EST) and will be broadcast nationally on FOX.

The unranked Irish (7-3) have an open date this Saturday and then complete the home portion of their schedule Nov. 23 against BYU (3:30 p.m. EST; NBC-TV).


Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees delivers a pass Saturday night at Pitt.