SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When the news hit last spring, it immediately and suddenly changed the complexion of Notre Dame football in 2013.
Quarterback Everett Golson, who had helped guide the Fighting Irish to the BCS championship game last season as a freshman, was suspended in May for the fall 2013 school term, and football season, due to “poor academic judgment.”
While Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly announced this week that Golson will be eligible to practice with the team when it begins bowl preparations next month, the Irish’s offense has been in the hands of much-maligned senior quarterback Tommy Rees this season.
Rees will be playing in his final game, on Senior Day, at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday (1:30 p.m. MST, NBC) when the Irish host BYU.
It’s the second straight year that BYU has played Notre Dame, and it’s the second consecutive time the Cougars have faced Rees.
A year ago, when Notre Dame defeated BYU, 17-14, Rees was filling in for an injured Golson. Rees completed 7-of-16 passes for 117 yards with one interception and one touchdown. The Irish relied heavily on their rushing attack in the second half, and ran for 270 yards overall against BYU.
Rees has completed 166-of-355 passes for 2,504 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. Rees has rushed eight times for minus-56 yards. He's been sacked seven times.
While Rees is 21-7 in his three seasons as a starter and ranks No. 3 in Notre Dame history in touchdown passes (58) and passing yards (6,917), he has drawn his share of criticism during his time in South Bend. He's led the Irish to memorable victories, and has taken blame for crushing defeats.
Kelly appreciates what Rees has done during his career for the Fighting Irish.
“Obviously he's the only quarterback that I've known in my four years here (as head coach) in terms of consistency of being here,” Kelly said. “Certainly he’s a young man that we are going to miss. I love his competitiveness and his drive he really loves Notre Dame and understands Notre Dame and understands the distinctions of Notre Dame. The example would be just his commitment to the program and being here all the time. You know, you'd never think of Tommy Rees being two seconds late for a meeting or not at a workout. He's always the first one in and the last one to leave. That's living it.”
At least one segment of the Notre Dame fan base also appreciates Rees. On Twitter, a #ThankTommy movement has sprung up this week.
BYU linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga said he respects Rees and his abilities.
“He’s a veteran guy with a lot of experience under center,” he said. “I’d say that his strength is that. He knows the scheme, he knows the offense, he knows defenses. He throws the ball well in the pocket. He does a good job of hitting his receivers.”
Rees’ favorite targets are TJ Jones (891 yards receiving and eight touchdowns) and DaVaris Daniels (535 yards and five touchdowns). George Atkinson III is the Irish’s leading rusher, having run for 512 yards.
Defensively, Notre Dame no longer has All-America linebacker Manti Te’o, who’s now playing in the NFL. But defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III are part of a formidable Irish front seven.
“They’re talented, they’re big and they’re physical,” said BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. “They’re experienced. They’re really good up front. It’s nothing we haven’t seen or that we can’t handle. I like our chances if we come out and play hard and execute.”
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said this year’s Irish team is very similar to the squad that played in the BCS title game last year.
“Same quarterback. A physical offensive line, and tight ends. A skilled running back and receivers,” Mendenhall said. “Tough on defense. Very similar to a year ago.”
While Notre Dame lost, 28-21, at Pittsburgh two weeks ago, it has notched impressive wins this season over Michigan State, Arizona State and USC.
Last week, Notre Dame had a bye.
“I think the week off proved to be effective for us,” Kelly said. “I thought we had a great day (Monday). I thought the legs were fresh. I thought if there was any rust off the guys, we got them out there moving. Those guys that are banged up got in there and competed. We are like everybody else in college football at this point in the year. We have got guys that are just fighting through it right now.”
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