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A shifting South Bend forecast

Young Rees has Irish hearts hoping for change in routine

November 27, 2010|BILL DWYRE

Tommy Rees turned 18 on May 22, which means he should be focused on the nuances of shaving.

Instead, late Saturday afternoon, he will be carrying the hopes of millions of people, many whose last names begin with a capital O and an apostrophe. He will be in hostile territory, in a marvelous old stadium whose name conjures up images of lions chasing Christians. He will have thousands there in person yelling for him, and many thousands more yelling against him. A national telecast makes that millions.

Rees is Notre Dame's quarterback. If this is how youth is served, let us pray for youth.

Rees was nine years from being born when Notre Dame began its 11-game winning streak in its cherished rivalry with USC in 1983. He was 9 years old the last time the Fighting Irish actually won a fight on the football field with the Trojans.

That was 2001, nine seasons and four coaches ago. Where have you gone, Bob Davie? A nation of desperate Irish fans turns its lonely eyes to you.

The enormity of the situation might be too much to comprehend for somebody Rees' age.

Notre Dame-USC is not a football game, it's a head-on collision. It thrives in the tradition of Knute Rockne's Gipper speeches and John McKay's one-liners. Its imagery pits the hard winters of the Midwest against the eternal summers of Hollywood. It matches guys who drive tractors against guys who drive convertibles.

Opposites are supposed to attract. These opposites attack.

Sports love rivalries, and this has been a passion for 84 years.

Of course, in recent years, Pete Carroll made the game more like somebody giving a timeout to a 5-year-old. The biology students in blue and gold would take the field and get their horn-rimmed glasses broken. Carroll's teams were always too big, fast and good for the offerings of Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, who left Notre Dame with, for Irish fans, the worst asterisk imaginable next to their records: *Never Beat USC.

Now Carroll is gone, USC is without its usual NFL ranking, and some are even giving the Fighting Irish a fighting chance.

Into this convergence of alumni hopes and dreams, clashing story lines and university aspirations steps Rees. He is three games into his stewardship of his team, having taken over for an injured Dayne Crist three weeks ago early in the game against Tulsa and solidifying his spot in victories over Utah and Army.

Against Tulsa, he passed for 334 yards and became the first Irish freshman to throw four touchdown passes in a game. He also threw a pass to a Tulsa defensive back with a chance to win late in the game. That meant that the only surprise bigger than Notre Dame's scheduling Tulsa was Notre Dame's losing to Tulsa.

His next two games were better. He completed 13 of 20 each in victories over nationally ranked Utah and outmanned Army. Suddenly, Notre Dame was bowl-eligible at 6-5 and USC, at 7-4, was not its usual 30-point blowout favorite.

Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley is injured, and if his high ankle sprain is like most high ankle sprains, the USC player taking snaps against the Irish will be long-suffering backup Mitch Mustain. Compared with Rees, Mustain is a grizzled veteran, but nowhere near as grizzled as he'd like to be. As a freshman at Arkansas in '06, he was 8-0 as the Razorbacks' starter. Then he had a run-in with the coach, transferred to USC, couldn't beat out Mark Sanchez and has also been No. 2 behind Barkley for these last two seasons.

When Mustain was ushering Arkansas up and down the field in '06, Rees was 14 and getting rides to Lake Forest (Ill.) High School from his mom.

Rees grew up, threw for 2,572 yards and 23 touchdowns last year, as a high school senior, and then left early for Notre Dame, skipping his last half of basketball season and enrolling at the university for the January semester. That allowed him to be a veteran of spring practice.

Now, he is the man, and says he has been handled well.

"The coaches have been great to me, and so have the other players," he said. "In the Tulsa game, a couple of the older players took me aside and reassured me they were with me."

Teammate Harrison Smith said, "All the older guys are blown away by how calm and cool he is."

Rees responded, "Guys are looking at me, and I thrive on that."

At least Saturday won't be the first time he has stepped into the Coliseum. Rees was born in Southern California, lived in Manhattan Beach for the first six years of his life while his dad, Bill, worked on Terry Donahue's UCLA staff, and watched as his brother, Danny, and the Bruins were defeated by the Trojans in the Coliseum last fall. His dad is now assistant director of football operations at Northwestern.

He seems unflappable on the field, and in interviews. His coach, Brian Kelly, said that "he is somebody we can win with."

What a day Saturday can be for Rees. Opportunity toys with disaster. Show time meets a horror show. Most times, it's only a game. Not this time.

It's Notre Dame-USC.


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