Tommy Rees is still the most trusted quarterback in South Bend, and this time he handed his coach a much-needed dose of vindication.
Irish junior Tommy Rees completed three of his eight passes on a game-winning drive Saturday night.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly inserted his embattled junior quarterback for the first time this season to a chorus of boos at Notre Dame Stadium with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of a tie game. Rees delivered a 55-yard game-winning drive to sneak away from Purdue with a 20-17 victory.
No. 22 Notre Dame played much of the fourth quarter without the stars of its cast, relying instead on veterans who have played mostly ancillary roles to this point in their career to lead the team down the field in its final drive. Rees completed three of his eight attempts on the drive, including a third-down desperation heave to fifth-year senior John Goodman. He later connected with senior Robby Toma for 21 yards on another third down play to bring the Irish into the red zone.
“Does he have all the elite skills? No, but he’s a gamer,” Kelly said following the game about Rees. “He’ll do anything. Those guys in that locker room will go to the wall for him. They’ll do anything because he’s a great teammate.”
Senior running back Theo Riddick provided the final push to put Notre Dame safely within field goal range. He busted through the Purdue defense for 11 yards with under a minute to go in the game. Two players later the Irish called on sophomore Kyle Brindza, playing in his first game as a placekicker, to end the game with a 27-yard field goal attempt. Brindza missed his first attempt earlier in the game, but in a final push highlighted by players in need of a second change Brindza came through to seal the win.
Rees replaced sophomore Everett Golson who nearly cost the Irish dearly with his first major mistake as a college quarterback. Golson fumbled deep in Notre Dame territory with four minutes in the remaining game to set up a game-tying touchdown for the Boilermakers. Kelly said Golson had trouble gripping the ball on the sideline following that play, but he made the choice to go with Rees because of his experience in previous pressure situations.
“We also made the decision with the flow of the game that Tommy could come in there and manage our two minute [offense], and he did a great job,” Kelly said. “I will further say, there is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State.”
Golson’s fairly successful day — 21-of-31 for 289 and one score passing to go along with a running touchdown — came to a close when Purdue cornerback Josh Johnson stripped the Irish first-year starter as he scrambled for a first down deep in Notre Dame territory. The turnover, Notre Dame’s only give away of the game, eventually lead to a Boilermaker touchdown.
After a delay of game, a quarterback sack and a badly overthrown pass, Purdue took advantage. On 4th-and-10, Caleb TerBush slipped a pass to senior Antavian Edison, who managed to squeak across the goal line while being torn down by a trio of Irish defenders. Edison’s second score of the game tied the score at 17 and provided a shot of adrenaline to a game that had otherwise been somewhat of a snoozer through the first 57 minutes.
After a sleepy first half at home, Notre Dame started the third quarter with 10 points in less than six minutes. Sophomore TJ Jones hauled in his first touchdown of the season to start the half. Notre Dame covered 60 yards through the air on the drive, including two long pass plays to senior Tyler Eifert. Eifert, who missed most of the fourth quarter with a concussion, finished with a career-high 98 receiving yards against the Boilermakers.
Junior Bennett Jackson made his first career interception — one of two on the day — on the following drive to set up a Notre Dame field goal. TerBush, feeling pressure from freshman Sheldon Day, underthrew his receiver and Jackson stepped in front of the pass at the 31-yard line. The Irish offense failed to pick up a first down, but got close enough for Brindza to poke through a 30-yard field goal and push the team’s lead to 17-7.
Purdue pushed the ball as close as the Notre Dame 1-yard line late in third quarter, but was unable to crack the end zone in the third quarter. A pair of costly missed tackles helped Robert Marve lead the Boilermakers to the brink of a touchdown before a delay of game and a Stephon Tuitt sack forced them to settle for a field goal.
Even with a healthy lineup, the Irish struggled to move the ball in the first half. Purdue made a successful, conscious effort to shut down the Irish running game that racked up 293 yards in its opening win a week earlier. The Boilermakers behind a strong effort from their crew of defensive linemen held the Irish to 52 rushing yards on 36 attempts officially.
Those numbers are slightly skewed by the 46 yards Golson lost on five sacks. Nonetheless, Notre Dame was never able to establish its ground attack. Defensive end Ryan Russell made seven tackles, including a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Kawann Short added two more sacks and four total tackles.
“They gave us a tough game,” said Irish captain and left tackle Zack Martin. “Hats off to them. They have us some challenges all day with different looks. They played very hard. We definitely expected them to come out and play like that.”
Purdue head coach Danny Hope said he knew the Irish wouldn’t be as dedicated to the run game this week as they were in Ireland, but the amount they passed the ball early in the game still caught him a little bit off guard.
“I assumed they wouldn’t come out and just run the ball at us. I think we’re too big and strong to run the football at us,” he said. “They threw it more times consecutively in a row than I anticipated. But I thought they would out and try to loosen us up some.”
Notre Dame finally cracked a scoreless tie 26 minutes into the game with an 88-yard scoring drive that featured the added dimension of an athletic quarterback. Golson avoided two pass rushers on a third-and-nine play deep in Irish territory, then hit sophomore Troy Niklas for a 30-yard gain.
He found sophomore DaVaris Daniels for 41 yards on a rollout later in the drive, and then picked up his first career rushing touchdown by tagging the pylon with the football as he dove out of bounds on a third-and-goal play.
Purdue took advantage of a special teams miscue to tie the score right before halftime. Sophomore Raheem Mostert got outside of the Irish kickoff coverage and brought the ball out to the 42-yard line before he was dragged down.
Marve, who had come off the bench one drive earlier, led a 13-play scoring drive capped off by a two-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds remaining in the half. Earlier in the drive, Marve scrambled away from pressure and found tight end Crosby Wright for a crucial 11-yard complete on fourth down. Six players later Marve found Edison open in the corner of the end zone.
Purdue dropped to 1-1 with their first loss of the season. Notre Dame improves to 2-0 for the first time since 2008. They’ll head into a particularly tough stretch of their 2012 schedule next week by traveling to East Lansing to play Michigan State.