Tommy Rees' uneven play was on full display in Notre Dame's latest victory at Pittsburgh. The sophomore quarterback had two more turnovers in the first half — a fumble and an interception — and then was a perfect 8-for-8 passing in a game-winning drive.
Coach Brian Kelly said there's no talk whatsoever about getting other quarterbacks into the games — whether for mop-up duty or for a change of pace. The Irish have evened their record at 2-2 headed into this Saturday's game at Purdue.
"Tommy is 6-1 as a starter. You know, he's led two very huge drives for us late in the game against Michigan and of course against Pittsburgh," Kelly said Sunday.
"He's obviously not a finished product; nobody is. He'll continue to get better and better and we'll continue to help him in terms of play calling and getting him in the right kind of situation so he can be successful."
Rees found a new favorite target in Saturday's 15-12 victory over the Panthers — tight end Tyler Eifert, who caught the go-ahead TD pass with just under seven minutes left, a two-point conversion and made eight receptions overall.
When Pitt buckled down on star receiver Michael Floyd after a fast start, Notre Dame's offense sputtered in the first half and was saved by Jonas Gray's 79-yard touchdown dash that featured a great block by Floyd and a missed tackle.
But trailing late, the Irish put together a sustained drive to pull out the victory.
"I think what we did more than anything else is we went back to some of our basics. Probably 10 or 15 plays, they were some of our base plays," Kelly said.
And he still likes Rees' ability to stay calm in difficult situations, even if he has had trouble turning the ball over. He has six interceptions and three fumbles this season, and the Irish have 15 turnovers overall.
"He's just got the right demeanor to be able to go out there in late games on the road and put it together when we need to," Kelly said. "So it's his personality. It's his makeup."
Rees took over as the starter after the first half of a season-opening loss to South Florida and senior Dayne Crist — who'd won a training camp competition for the job — headed to the bench after just two quarters.
Crist has handled the demotion well, Kelly said.
"I think he's been very professional in the sense that he's gone to work every day, he's worked hard; he's staying prepared," Kelly said.
"He's not happy with his situation, but no one would be. But he's been a positive influence on our team, and he's prepared for when he gets his chance to be ready."
Notre Dame's defense had six sacks Saturday and twice got to Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri on a final drive to keep the Panthers out of field goal range.
The defense has shown improvement the last two games after faltering late in a loss at Michigan two weeks ago.
"I's coming together. The plan is to develop our defense and let our offense kind of work its way into who our players are," Kelly said.
So what has Kelly figured out about his team after the first month? The tough loss at Michigan when the Wolverines scored the game winner with two seconds to go still stands out during the 2-2 start.
"Obviously the Michigan game is going to be one that we relive over and over and over. That's not going to go away," Kelly said.
"But getting back-to-back wins, getting the good road win, I think our guys feel good about themselves and know that, you know, it takes a strong will to win games late, and especially on the road," he said.
"Our kids understand what it takes to win, and they know if they play well they are capable of winning each game they play."