For much of the offseason, a feeling of uncertainty lingered around Notre Dame’s quarterback situation. Not because the Fighting Irish were expecting a tight competition -- it seemed a foregone conclusion that senior Tommy Rees would replace suddenly departed starter Everett Golson. Notre Dame's primary concern was that Rees’ much-maligned career hadn’t sparked enough optimism in his abilities, especially in late-game situations.
But fans probably liked what they saw out of Rees in the Irish’s 2013 opener. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior went 16-of-23 for 346 yards and three scores as Notre Dame routed Temple 28-6 in South Bend. It was Rees’ most productive game as a member of the Fighting Irish. More importantly, he didn’t commit a single turnover, a problem that’s plagued him in the past.
Rees has tossed 24 picks in his three-year career, but he kept a clear mind against the Owls in Week 1. “The pleasure for me was being able to go out there and play well enough to get a W," he told reporters after the game. "There is no added benefit for me for some of the hard times I've fallen on, but it's gone well.”
Of course, winning a game against Temple is one thing. A victory over Michigan is another. That’s the task facing Rees this Saturday as he looks to build off Notre Dame’s resurgent 2012 campaign, when it went 12-0 during the regular season before falling to Alabama in the BCS title game.
The 41st meeting between the two schools will take place in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines dropped Central Michigan 59-9 in Week 1. Michigan is coming off two straight seasons in which it ranked among top 20 nationally in total defense; last year’s pass defense ranked fifth in the country, allowing just 169.5 yards per game. Against the Chippewas, coach Brady Hoke’s Wolverines recorded four sacks and regularly flustered quarterbacks Alex Niznak and Cody Kater. The duo went a combined 13-of-28 for 144 yards.
Saturday's game will take on even greater significance given the looming end to the annual rivalry. Next fall's meeting will be the last for the two schools. Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly made headlines over the weekend by saying he didn’t consider Michigan to be among the “historical, traditional Notre Dame rivalries,” but he backed off those comments during his press conference on Tuesday. “It's a great and historic rivalry that we'll be playing this Saturday, so let's get that out of the way right away so we don't have to answer any more questions about this rivalry,” Kelly said with a laugh.
Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner was more blunt. “It’s Michigan-Notre Dame,” he told ESPN. “I don’t think much more has to be said when you say that.”
The Irish suffered heartbreak in their two most recent visits to The Big House. In 2009, Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier hit Greg Mathews for a five-yard touchdown with 11 seconds remaining to steal a 38-34 come-from-behind win. Two years later, Rees went 27-of-39 for 315 yards and three touchdowns, including a 29-yard scoring pass to Theo Riddick that gave Notre Dame a 31-28 lead with just 30 seconds left. But the Wolverines ultimately prevailed: Denard Robinson’s 16-yard pass to Roy Roundtree with two seconds to go clinched a dramatic victory.
Kelly knows that Michigan will pose a far larger challenge to his team than Temple did last week. He said he expects Rees, who has bounced between roles in the starting lineup and on the bench for much of his career, to continue to mature as the leader of the Fighting Irish. “We want him to be a little bit more consistent in some other areas as we continue to develop,” Kelly said. “He's got to make a couple of the easier throws that are out there for him, and I think he will, and continue to progress on what he did this week, and that is when he's asked to put us in the right place.”
Rees has the necessary experience. He has a star-studded defense, led by defensive end Stephon Tuitt and 6-3, 342-pound defensive tackle Louis Nix III. If Rees can come through on Saturday, he could do more than set Notre Dame on course for another BCS run -- he could take a major step in reshaping his reputation.
“It's loud, the fans, it's a night game,” Kelly said. “I think any time that you put a veteran quarterback in that situation, it has a calming effect to everybody because he's been through it. There's no question that that's going to help in this instance.”
• No. 12 Florida at Miami: This game represents the end of this once-proud rivalry, which is a shame. But it’s an opportunity for Hurricanes’ quarterback Stephen Morris to notch a huge upset. A Miami native, Morris was once heavily recruited by the Gators. His NFL potential could skyrocket with a big outing here.
• No. 6 South Carolina at No. 11 Georgia: Two straight losses to top-10 teams surely means Mark Richt is back on the hot seat, right? Perhaps only in the minds of Georgia fans. The Dawgs need a victory here to keep their lofty preseason goals alive, but don’t underestimate the power of South Carolina’s all-white uniforms -- the sun shines awfully bright for those 4:30 p.m. kickoffs.
Watch out for …
• Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel: It’s Johnny Football’s first full game of action in 2013. We’re setting the over/under on the number of Sam Houston State players who taunt the reigning Heisman winner at 2.5.
• Virginia’s special teams: Cavaliers’ punter Alec Vozenilek got quite a workout in the Week 1 win over BYU:
We’re going out on a limb here: Virginia doesn’t stand a chance against Oregon if it has to use Vozenilek that frequently on Saturday.
• J-school students: It’ll be a battle of top journalism schools when Syracuse visits Northwestern this week. Let’s hope the game is equally high level -- and produces videos as spectacular as this one:
• Washington State at No. 25 USC: Those awake for last week’s late-night kickoff between USC and Hawaii witnessed a lukewarm performance by the Trojans. Though coach Lane Kiffin’s crew pulled away for an eventual 30-13 win, USC converted only 3-of-14 third downs and looked underwhelming at quarterback. How will the Trojans respond when Mike Leach and the Cougars visit L.A.?
• Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight: The Sooners’ redshirt freshman was dynamic in his first college contest, becoming the first Oklahoma quarterback since Jason White in 2001 to rush for more than 100 yards in a game. He also threw three touchdowns passes. Knight’s encore will come against Big 12 foe West Virginia, a squad that looked very shaky against William & Mary in Week 1.
No. 15 Texas at BYU: The city of Austin sits 498 feet above sea level. Provo, Utah? Try 4,551 feet. The Longhorns must handle that elevation while also besting a menacing BYU defense led by linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Still, if Texas quarterback David Ash plays like he did last weekend against New Mexico State (343 passing yards, five total touchdowns), the ‘Horns should be in good shape. MANDEL: Week 2 Pickoff: South Carolina-Georgia, Texas-BYU, Florida-Miami; more