Utah Utes football: Tommy Rees played like some of the Irish greats

Published: Saturday, Nov. 13 2010 9:00 p.m. MST

Derrick Shelby tips a pass from Notre Dame's freshman QB Tommy Rees during his first start for the Irish.    (Tyler Cobb, Deseret News) Derrick Shelby tips a pass from Notre Dame's freshman QB Tommy Rees during his first start for the Irish. (Tyler Cobb, Deseret News)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The 18-year-old freshman insisted on telling the truth.

Tommy Rees sensed the pressure, heard the whispers from ghosts of days gone by.

The Heismans of Bertelli, Lujack, Hornung and Huarte. The well-known names of Lamonica, Hanratty, Theismann, Montana, Beuerlein, Rice and Mirer. The NFL quarterbacks of today, Quinn and Clausen.

But rather than succumb Saturday to the weight of his first start as QB at Notre Dame, where fame is found and legends die hard, Rees embraced the moment.

The Chicago-area youngster completed 13-of-20 passes for 129 yards, threw for three touchdowns and led the Fighting Irish to a 28-3 victory over No. 15 Utah.

Afterward, he didn't deny being impacted by the need to pay history homage.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel it a little bit," Rees said. "But everyone supports you ... and once you start playing it kind of goes away."

In a hurry, as was the case Saturday.

"At the beginning, running out there, you get some (butterflies)," he said of exiting the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel as teenaged leader at such a storied school.

"But they're all positive butterflies," Rees added. "You know, you're anxious to play. And once the first series comes, they're all gone."

Credit Brian Kelly for assisting with that.

The Irish coach was seen walking off the field here two Saturdays prior with his arm around Rees, offering consolation after he'd just thrown for 334 yards and four touchdowns in relief of injured out-for-the-season starter Dayne Crist — but also three interceptions during a 28-27 loss to Tulsa.

From watching film to establishing a rapport with his receivers, Rees made the most of Notre Dame's bye week.

Kelly simplified the Irish offense, incorporated an inordinate number of quarterback-friendly plays (including a particularly popular formation replete with two tight ends) and removed as much stress as possible.

"I wasn't going to put this game on Tommy Rees," Kelly said.

In any way, shape or form.

"Tommy is a young man who really understands the game of football," Kelly added. "Whether you're in the spread and five wides, or you're running tackle pull or power — which we probably ran more times than I think we've run power here in a long time — he can handle the adjustments that are made."

He certainly did Saturday, all while keeping things as rudimentary as the Utes would allow.

Rees' first TD pass came in the second quarter, a 3-yarder to Michael Floyd. Two more followed in the third, both to Duval Kamara, one for 26 yards, one for 12.

During one stretch he had five straight completions that went for first downs, and when he was done Rees was Notre Dame's first QB to throw for three touchdowns in his first start.

"They did a great job of putting him in situations to succeed," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "They didn't ask a bunch of throws of him down the field. When they did, he did a nice job."

So good, it looked for a short while that Rees might go all Brady-Quinn-on-BYU.

As it turned out, he didn't throw for six TDs like Quinn did against the Cougars in 2005.

But he did perform well enough to make legends proud, be it Bertelli looking down from above or NFL greats watching from wherever.

The Utes, Whittingham insisted, tried not to get caught up in all the lore.

"Did we talk about Notre Dame tradition and so forth? No," the Utes coach said. "We're playing those 11 guys on the field right there. We're not playing Joe Montana or Joe Theismann, or all these great players that have been through here."

But they were playing a kid who came through, one who had a fine time doing it.

Said Rees, sounding every bit of 18: "It was a blast being out there."

e-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com

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