NOTRE DAME — No pleas for “The Gipper” were necessary. Tommy Rees had this one covered.
Teams leading at halftime usually don’t require a spirited lockerroom speech, but Rees delivered one as Notre Dame led rival USC 14-10 Saturday, Oct. 19 in a grinding college football game which ended with the same score.
His words clearly hit home.
“It was a passionate speech ... one of the more passionate things I’ve ever heard Tommy say,” senior TJ Jones said. “It was really just keep your head in the game, don’t give up, we’ve got this ...30 minutes wasn’t enough. We need another 30 to win this game.
“He had a lot of the guys almost in tears. It’s the first time Tommy spoke out like that, and it was definitely emotional.”
Rees gave the Irish the lead with touchdown passes to Troy Niklas and Jones on a stellar catch at the side of the end zone. Evidently, he wanted more.
“Just because you’re going into the half winning, you could come out of the game losing by who knows what,” Jones said of Rees’ words. “So his initiative just kind of ... his want to take that initiative to really fuel that mentality in our minds says a lot about him.”
So when Rees was driven hard into the Notre Dame Stadium turf by a Trojans sack and subsequently driven out of the game early in the third quarter, his teammates returned the favor with an emotional second half message of its own.
The tenor of the game was exhausting and the play was fierce, if not spectacular.
“We just had to rally together,” freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “He’s been here going on five years now and he has a lot of experience. When somebody like that goes down, it takes the entire team to rally.”
Zach Martin, an Irish veteran, helped keep the sidelines on task when backup QB Andrew Hendrix struggled.
“I told the guys to just keep the energy up and keep our defense off the field,” he said. “We didn’t do a great job of that, but we were trying to keep guys in the game.”
In the spirit of old-fashioned, classic USC-Notre Dame games, the defense turned up the heat on the Trojans — over and over again.
USC runs were stuffed and quarterback Cody Kessler had less and less time to throw in the face of a reckless Irish pass rush.
Even though the Irish went scoreless in the second half, the defense had its back by pitching a shut out of its own.
“It’s just a testament to Coach Kelly, everything he does and all the coaches like coach (Bob) Diaco ... just the intensity and focus they bring to the table. We just follow that,” linebacker Dan Fox said.
Rees later returned and though unable to play, he stayed in Notre Dame’s ears.
“He just said keep striving, keep pushing,” Jones said. “We’ve got this game and it’s going to come down to inches and to really not give up. Same message he would have said if he was playing.”