I was originally going to title this write-up with a cheesy Irish-Catholic pun like, "God Bless Ye, Tommy Rees," and then point out that despite my being a Catholic I still do outwardly despise the Notre Dame football program, and was going to follow up with a lengthy, sardonic ripping of Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees and how he can always be counted on for turnovers.
All of this being adequately summed up by a certain-fingered salute to Tommy Rees that essentially said thank you for the victory. Instead, as is often the case following a Michigan victory over the Fighting Irish, I find myself hating Notre Dame a little less.
Obviously the hatred is still there. Notre Dame has one of the most insufferable fan bases in college football. They think that Michigan is a threat only in the sense that there must be some voodoo magic happening in Ann Arbor; the Wolverines are not in any way more talented, even at certain positions. It is simply not possible. This line of thinking is summarized perfectly by One Foot Down's Eric Murtaugh in his preview of Michigan:
Weird things happen in Ann Arbor when the Irish show up---and it's usually not in Notre Dame's favor. Just like the Big House has been a consistent vexing force in recent times yet again the Irish travel north with what looks like a stronger team. No, Notre Dame is not favored for the first time since 2008 but you can throw the spread out when these teams get together as the underdog has covered in 20 out of the last 24 meetings.
I really don't have much more to say. If we compare units and matchups in this game I think Notre Dame has a distinct advantage, especially where it matters most in the trenches. I have a lot more faith in Notre Dame's ability to run the ball, stop the run, and protect the quarterback. I'd have a lot of faith in the Irish getting after Devin Gardner but he's a great athlete who can make plays by himself and escape pressure.
And that's just it. If Gardner plays just okay and isn't Devin the Darkhorse Heisman Candidate I don't see how Michigan wins this game. I think Notre Dame can win if Tommy Rees plays okay. Too simplistic?
Did we end up seeing Devin the Darkhorse Heisman Candidate? Um, not really. Gardner played about as well as he did in his five starts at the end of 2012, which Notre Dame fans would know if they actually watched any games that Michigan played besides the one against Notre Dame. Perhaps Gardner even played better against Notre Dame, which just shows that he's improving. But is he a Heisman candidate? Don't be ridiculous.
Still, it's obvious I took great joy in this victory. Obviously that's because I really, really don't like Notre Dame. I used to think that fans of the Fighting Irish and Wolverines could co-exist in peace and that we could mutually respect each others' traditions, sort of like how if a USC fan bumps into a Florida fan the biggest thing they'll dispute is which conference is stronger. Instead you have experiences not just with Notre Dame fans but also the people in charge of Notre Dame who really do things that make them so unlikeable. "Notre Dame is just on a whole other level than everyone else" is usually the expression. Yeah, a whole other level of suck.
Brian Kelly's comments that Michigan is not really a rivalry worth keeping is just one of the many examples that provided Michigan's players with plenty of motivation to perform better on Saturday. Even worse is that Notre Dame fans flat out agree with Kelly. Via Zach's Q&A with OFD's pburns:
But from ND's point of view, it isn't one of those "every year, no matter what" games. Those games are USC, Navy, Stanford, and to a lesser extent Purdue.
Purdue. Notre Dame must play Navy and Purdue no matter what. Michigan? Meh. I get the whole "We're moving to the ACC" thing, but Michigan plays in the Big Ten (which might not be as tough as the SEC, but you have to admit we could hang with anyone in the ACC) and we still want to schedule Notre Dame. We do that because it's a great rivalry and it's important not just to Michigan but to college football. Sure, it makes the teams' respective schedules tougher, but that's what you get when you have two storied programs duking it out on national television.
So right now I'm torn. I'm torn from wanting Notre Dame to lose every single game on their schedule just so I can revel in every single delicious Irish tear, the fact that we just dashed their national championship hopes (again), and from wanting Notre Dame to actually do well for the remainder of their season because it's actually good for Michigan. Really it's good for Michigan that every opponent they defeat goes on to have a great season. It helps Michigan's standing. (This is why there are even Ohio State fans who want Michigan to be undefeated when they square off in The Game.)
Let us first savor for a moment the fact that Notre Dame will not be able to get to the national championship game and redeem themselves from the showing last January against the Crimson Tide. They can't go undefeated. In that respect, it's over. They don't have a conference championship to play for; they aspire for the national championship, one of the reasons they stay independent. Well, after Saturday's game, No Soup for You, Irish.
The Golden Domers might not have ever possessed the mettle to get to the championship game this year; they got there last year from having a make-out session with the Blarney Stone, and of course everyone knows what happened against Alabama. However, while Notre Dame obviously can't go 12-0 again (you're welcome, chickens), I can certainly see them going 10-2. In fact a part of me wants them to go 10-2.
This is not the Notre Dame program anymore that simply needed to get out of their own way to win football games, as was the case in Brian Kelly's first two seasons. Even in 2012 they weren't quite ready to hit the big time. This is a Notre Dame team that, while they might not have a standout superstar on which they can hang all of their ridiculously delusional hopes and dreams (Michael Floyd, Manti Teo, Everett Golson), they have a chance to be a balanced, cohesive unit that relies better on the sum of their parts rather than Captain Bailout.
I didn't want to say this in my quick preview of Notre Dame, but no one gives Tommy Rees enough credit. He is a legitimately good quarterback and I was very impressed with his performance against Temple. There was enough question marks for Michigan that I didn't want to cause heaps of panic (if not in others, then in myself) by adding to it with a passing suggestion that we may have to "watch out" for Tommy Rees. Never mind that he ripped Michigan's defense apart in 2011, and sealed the win against Michigan (and other teams) in 2012.
There was an absolute fantastic podcast interview between TheWolverine.com's Michael Spath and Notre Dame radio play-by-play broadcaster Don Criqui, who you might remember had that glorious display of depression and confusion when Michigan won the 2011 game in the final minutes. Still, Criqui is one of the most respected broadcasters in the business, and his interview with Spath was remarkably intriguing, especially when it came to the discussion of Tommy Rees. You can listen to the interview here, or if the link is dead by the time you read this, here is the sound clip. In the podcast, Criqui claims that Rees's completion percentage is 64%, which would make him statistically the most accurate Notre Dame quarterback in the program's history.
Let that sink in for a moment. One Thomas Kevin Rees actually has a better completion percentage than Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, and even Joe Montana.
Those quarterbacks are considered by many Notre Dame faithful to have been superstars of the Fighting Irish under center. Yet when Rees entered the game against Purdue in 2012 he was met with boos. One Foot Down collectively went NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
The title of this write-up is called "You're a Good Man, Tommy Rees" because I've gained something of an appreciation for Rees as Notre Dame's quarterback. It isn't the appreciation you'd normally expect. In the aftermath of the Michigan game I was originally thinking of writing a piece where I jeered on Rees and laughed at how his fourth-quarter interception helped win Michigan the game. That's certainly what I felt in the moment. Joy at my enemy's misfortune. Good old Tommy Rees throws another INT.
Then I listened to Criqui's interview with Spath again, and I started reading what some of the Notre Dame bloggers were saying about Rees. Then, as is often the case with me these days, I looked at the stats. I reviewed the game. I took a step back. The conclusion I came to was this: Rees was pretty damn impressive, and he's actually been impressive for much of his Notre Dame career. We just haven't been able to see it.
Rees is by no means a superstar. His interceptions are public knowledge and talking points for talking heads. He is one of the most scrutinized quarterbacks in college football right now next to Nebraska's Taylor Martinez. Rees also has his personal flaws. I'm not suggesting that he's some sort of innocent lamb who has been victimized. I am suggesting, however, is that he might be unnecessarily hated by his team's own fan base and that, despite the costly mistakes, he doesn't get enough credit for the good stuff.
I heard somewhere (it was probably Criqui again) that Rees is the most popular player on the team right now by his teammates. I don't doubt that for a second. In the face of overwhelmingly negative national perception, bizarre upsets at the hands of Tulsa and South Florida, off the field drama that includes his coach turning redder than a tomato, there's Rees, solid as a rock during game time, ready for the next snap. It doesn't matter how bad things have gotten, it doesn't matter the person ahead of him just sprained a knee, it doesn't matter if he just threw an interception, there's Tommy Rees, ready to bust his butt for Notre Dame. Nothing shakes him.
Yet there he is, unappreciated, hated, jeered, criticized, teased, and joked about by Notre Dame fans. When Rees was suspended for the opener against Navy in 2012, opening up the starter job for Everett Golson, Notre Dame fans cheered. "Bye, bye, Tommy Turnover," they said. It wouldn't surprise me if at all if a group of fans got together and did a collective, celebratory river-dance when he finally drives away from campus following the graduation ceremony, as Irish fans wave goodbye to him with nothing but their middle fingers. (Golson was eventually suspended for his own off-the-field indiscretion, which officials cited as "academic dishonesty," and he is barred from Notre Dame's campus, essentially expelled, until January 2014.)
The title "You're a Good Man, Tommy Rees" is also a play-on-words from the off-Broadway production, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," ironically named since the Peanuts character is famous for being terrible at everything he does, and is sometimes undeservedly despised by other characters in his own universe, a theme that author/artist Charles M. Schulz said was created out of his own insecurities growing up as a child. Comedian Chris Rock also referenced the comic strip as part of his inspiration for his produced sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris," a play-on-words from the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond." Both are based on similar characters who are not actually universally loved. "Everybody Hates Chris" is ironic because, despite the character entering into unfavorable situations, he is not universally hated.
In Schulz's first comic strip, two Peanuts characters (it was actually called Li'l Folk back then) sit on the sidewalk. As Charlie Brown skips by, one of the characters repeats the phrase, "Here comes Good Ol' Charlie Brown! Yes, sir! Good Ol' Charlie Brown!" It is not until the fourth comic pane, when Charlie Brown is out of frame, away from the character, that the onlooker tells the other, "How I hate him." The joke, which later became a running gag, was that no matter what Charlie Brown did, the characters in his life would hate his guts.
That's Tommy Rees at Notre Dame. He's a quarterback who, as Michael Spath put so aptly, "can do no right" in the eyes of the fans. However, before we throw stones at glass houses, let's recall that our own base is not innocent of criticizing Michigan quarterbacks in similar ways. We all remember how John Navarre was steely and stoic and didn't look spectacular in games, didn't look like a Heisman-winning quarterback, didn't look like a phenom. He was just a statue throwing footballs. But there he was, quietly breaking records.
On Sunday I watched a replay of the Michigan-Notre Dame game and, much like watching the Temple game, I was significantly impressed with Rees's performance. There was one moment in particular that stood out to me. With exactly 1:40 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Rees throws his first interception of the season, picked off by Michigan cornerback Blake Countess, who after some scuttle brings it back for 30 yards. Rees hustles over to the sideline after the play is over.
He doesn't throw a tantrum. He doesn't cry. He doesn't curse himself out. He has the same expression he has whenever he scores a touchdown or completes a pass or gets warmed up for a drive. Is there some disappointment in himself? Probably, but Rees doesn't linger on that. He observes, he heads over to Kelly for instruction, he takes it in, he trusts his teammates, and he gets them ready for the next possession.
That's a remarkable amount of poise, and it's something that Rees has seemed to have forever. It's the thing that allowed him, as a true freshman in 2010, to lead the Irish to five straight victories. It's what allowed Rees to help Kelly salvage the nightmare that could have been 2011 (be honest, it could have been worse). And it's what allowed Rees to be effective as college football's best backup to Everett Golson in 2012, helping the Irish to 12-0.
At a time when Notre Dame football often seems like the picture of instability, with turmoil every where they turn off the field (decommitments, suspensions, fake girlfriends), that type of solid, unshakeable steeliness on the field might be exactly what Notre Dame needs going forward.
And that's Tommy Rees.