NOTRE DAME — Tommy Rees didn’t even have to throw the football to silence thousands of doubters waiting for the senior quarterback to sink or sail in Notre Dame’s home opener.
Rees lined up behind center for the first play against Temple. He checked to the outside zone, didn’t like what he saw and changed the play on the spot.
The result? A 45-yard burst by running back Amir Carlisle.
Less than 90 seconds after kickoff, the Irish were in the end zone after Rees connected with receiver DaVaris Daniels. On the next series, they did it all again.
Six plays, four first downs and two touchdowns in the first 2:37 off the clock. Not something that would have happened in 2011, or even 2012.
Rees continued to build his resume, looking smarter, stronger and more confident than the sophomore version of himself.
“I think we answered a lot of questions right away with his ability to push the ball down the field,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Rees. “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.”
Despite a lukewarm second quarter and a more muted second half, Notre Dame rolled on to a 28-6 win over visiting Temple.
The Irish wouldn’t score again until the final minute of the first half, a product of Temple’s long, field-eating drives and less offensive zip from the Irish.
Daniels was sidelined in the second quarter for what Kelly later called a “slight groin injury.” Kelly said Daniels could have gone back in the game, but that the offensive depth allowed Notre Dame to err on the side of caution.
In all, 17 non-starters rotated in during the first quarter. Sixteen first-time players — including 10 true freshmen — took the field over the course of the game. Senior TJ Jones posted a career-high six receptions for 138 yards.
“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,” Kelly said in reference to receivers. “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 think it gives us great balance across the board.”
The Irish defense, touted by national analysts as one of the best in the country, gave up 362 offensive yards and three trips to the red zone but held the Owls to six points, thanks in part to two missed field goals, a failed fourth down conversion attempt in the red zone and a missed extra point.
Temple’s lone score came in the waning minutes of the second quarter, a 1-yard punch after back-to-back defensive penalties. With 54 seconds left in the half, Rees found Troy Niklas open deep and connected with the tight end for a 66-yard touchdown, the longest in both of their careers.
Rees averaged more than 18 yards per pass, boosted by a pair of 32-yard touchdown passes to Daniels, the 66-yard bomb to Niklas, a 55-yard pass to Jones and a 33-yarder to Chris Brown. Though the 346 yards he finished with are a career high, Rees downplayed the accomplishment.
“I never doubted the fact that we could drive the ball down the field, really make some deep throws for us,” he said. “DaVaris did a good job getting open on the early ones. Then we had a couple there later. Good job by the receivers. I put the ball where it needed to be and it worked out.”
Rees’ game isn’t perfect yet, something both he and Kelly will readily admit.
Rees overshot receivers at times — “a couple throws I want back,” he said — and lapsed into his old habit of rushing throws on occasion. But the 2013 version of Rees is undoubtedly more solid than his 2011 counterpart, which has to give Notre Dame a shot of hope heading into Michigan next Saturday.
“Openers are probably for coaches the most difficult because the preparation and the planning, you don’t know what to expect, really,” Kelly said. “I mean, we can talk about our team. We can, you know, 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.”