As Tommy Rees sauntered from midfield to the northwest corner of Notre Dame Stadium for the traditional postgame playing of the alma mater, teammates stopped to congratulate him on the 28-6 season-opening victory over Temple.
Senior quarterback Tommy Rees threw two touchdown passes in the game's first five minutes and led the offense to a season-opening win over Temple.
A win itself is no new venture for the senior signal-caller — he now stands at 15-4 as a starter — but this Saturday had a different air about it: Rees is the unquestioned leader at the position and no longer has to worry about losing his job, or appearing only in relief situations.
After entering the season as the program’s starting quarterback for the first time in his tumultuous career, Rees delivered one of the best performances of his career: 16-of-23 for 346 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
“I’ve learned a lot in my three years previous and I’ve got a great understanding of what’s going on out there,” Rees said. “All of that adds to confidence and I have all the confidence in the world in my teammates: my offensive line, the guys that make plays for us. I’m confident in anyone we’re running out there.”
It took just six offensive plays and 4:41 off the clock in the first quarter for Notre Dame (1-0) to seize a 14-0 lead to begin its 2013 campaign. Junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels — who left the game later in the half with a minor groin injury and is expected to play at Michigan — snagged his first- and second-career touchdown receptions from Rees on plays of 32 yards each.
Throughout the game, Rees demonstrated an improved deep throw that enhanced an Irish offense with several playmakers.
“I never doubted the fact that we can drive the ball down the field and really make some deep throws for us,” said Rees, who also tossed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Troy Niklas. “DaVaris did a good job of getting open on the early ones. We had a couple later and it was a good job by the receivers. I put the ball where it needed to be and it worked out.”
For a program that vividly remembers the frustration of a deflating season opener amidst high expectations in 2011, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly sounded relieved to survive Temple (0-1) unscathed.
“Openers are probably for coaches the most difficult because the preparation and the planning, you don't know what to expect, really,” he said. “We can talk about our team. We can think that we know about our team, but you really don't until they get out there and play. Certainly we had a notion about this team, but until they get out and really get into the action, you don't know a lot about it, and we got a chance to find out a little bit about our football team today, and we won.
“Anytime you can win in an opener, you can learn so much more about your football team.”
After the two quick scoring drives — three plays, 77 yards in 1:26 and three plays, 87 yards in 1:01, respectively — the Irish offense stalled across midfield three times the next three series. The Owls reached the end zone for the first time with 1:01 remaining in the first half on Kenneth Harper’s 1-yard touchdown run to conclude a nine-play, 78-yard drive. In 2012, Notre Dame’s defense did not surrender a rushing score until the fourth quarter of the eighth game, when Oklahoma’s Blake Bell scored six.
Fortunately for the Irish, Temple failed to take advantage of its opportunities. Owls kicker Jim Cooper missed two field goals and his extra point was blocked by Irish sophomore defensive lineman Jarron Jones.
“Our defense does not surrender big plays and keeps the points down and really makes you work to sustain drives and to get it into the end zone,” Kelly said.
“We're suffocating in that sense defensively.”
Notre Dame encountered field goal kicking issues of its own. Fifth-year senior Nick Tausch missed a 39-yard attempt and last year’s starter, junior Kyle Brindza, could not convert a 44-yard try.
Following Harper’s score — Temple’s only of the game — Rees found Niklas across the middle and the junior tight end scampered 66 yards to the end zone in what amounted to a crushing blow to the Owls’ hopes. The play marked the longest in both players’ respective careers and handed Rees a stellar stat line for the first half: 11-of-16 for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
“I saw some really good things, and some things that we're going to have to get better at,” said Kelly about Rees, who finished with a career-high 346 yards and three touchdowns. “We had six possessions in the first half, and I think we missed a couple of throws that he'd like to have back. … But I think we had four or five chunk plays of over 30 yards. Obviously a lot of the questions coming in [were whether we could] push the ball down the field.”
“I think we answered a lot of those questions right away with his ability to push the ball down the field. I thought his patience was better, and it will continue to get better. So I was pleased with his performance, and he knows he can play better.”
Temple opened the second half with a 14-play, 53-yard drive that stalled at the Irish 6-yard line. Four Connor Reilly incompletions — the Owls went for it on fourth down with a 15-point deficit after their first-half kicking issues — turned the ball over to Notre Dame’s offense.
“When your back’s against the wall, you play it a little differently,” fifth-year senior linebacker Dan Fox said. “We just stuck together pretty much. We knew we had each other’s backs and we needed that to be successful.”
Junior running back George Atkinson scored the first rushing touchdown of the season with a 2-yard rumble to cap off a seven-play, 94-yard drive. Sophomore wide receiver Chris Brown sparked the offense with a 33-yard reception — his third catch of the game after notching just two in 2012 — that put the Irish in the red zone. After junior Cam McDaniel’s 16-yard rush, Atkinson completed the drive with his 2-yard plunge.
Although a comfortable victory certainly contributed to Notre Dame’s offensive balance, seven Irish players caught a pass and six attempted a rush in the 543-yard output.
“I was very pleased,” Kelly said. “I thought you saw what I was hoping for. You had Daniels catch a touchdown. You had TJ Jones and obviously Chris Brown [make big plays]. You had Troy Niklas, you had the running backs catch footballs. You had [freshman running back] Tarean Folston catching a nice ball coming out of the back field. I think you're going to see great distribution of the football across the board, and it's going to be somebody new each week.
“Now TJ Jones is going to be in the mix every single week, because he's one of the best wide receivers in the country. But you're going to see a lot of guys contribute offensively. I think it's for the better. I really do. I think it gives us great balance across the board.”
With the season opener — Notre Dame’s 13th consecutive regular season victory — behind them, the Irish’s focus now turns to Michigan, who will host Notre Dame in primetime at the Big House on Saturday.