Leading Man

Sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees will run the show in Ann Arbor Saturday. But the key word for the Irish in their contest vs. Michigan, and in every game Notre Dame will play in 2011, or in season's past, or in the foreseeable future, is contained within that opening sentence.

The first 23 times Notre Dame kicker David Ruffer attempted a collegiate field goal, the end result of his between the pipes boot elicited a greeting from his teammates. Two, five, 10, and in at least one case, the majority of Ruffer's fellow Irish smacked his shoulder pads or helmet – a common congratulatory gesture of kids and men wearing armor in front of 80,000 spectators.

Ruffer's 24th kick – a meaningless boot if not for his 23-kick streak of success – sailed wide right. Notre Dame led Miami 30-3 at the time, and plenty of Ruffer's teammates were in a celebratory mood, disinterested in the proceedings with the game in hand.

Except Tommy Rees.

As a dejected Ruffer – who had tweaked his calf on his previous successful field goal – limped to the sidelines, a freshman quarterback that would lose his starting job nine months later stopped Ruffer short of the sidelines, grabbed his shoulder pads and after offering brief words of encouragement, smacked him on the helmet, just as he had after numerous Ruffer boots that rang true.

It was a gesture that had nothing to do with Notre Dame's blowout victory, and nothing to do with the quarterback competition that ensued between Rees and eventual chosen starter Dayne Crist over the winter, spring, and summer, but one that is again relevant as the 2011 Irish have already experience their first fall.

As the son of a football coach, it's a challenge Rees unknowingly began preparations for in grade school.

"My dad and I are real close and we've talked about football since I was eight years old," Rees offered. "Just being around it my whole life I think has prepared me to know the ups and downs and the way the game is supposed to be played."

Tommy Rees might not be able to throw a ball through a tire from 30 yards away, or break 4.8 in a 40-yard dash, or get into an R-rated movie without showing his I.D., but he's never lost a college football game as a starter. Not since his brief debut vs., coincidentally, Michigan, in an emergency role last September have the lights of the main stage had an effect on the young triggerman.

"Tommy goes in there, and the game is not difficult for him," Kelly said Sunday of Rees' efforts under difficult circumstances. "He's obviously got to get better in a lot of areas, but he doesn't go into the game and appear at any time to be overwhelmed or anxious. He's always seemed very comfortable running out on the field. It's always been a strength of his."

That strength will be necessary as the sophomore fights through the requisite technical weaknesses of a young signal-caller.

Dance with who ‘brung ya'

Of Rees' 198 college passes, 10 have landed in opposing hands. The ratio is far too high, but the good news for Irish fans is that six of Rees' 10 career interceptions have occurred in a relief role – thrown to the fray due to injury or ineffectiveness from the starter.

More troubling is that at eight of the 10 picks were the result of bad reads or passes; five were under thrown balls; and, perhaps predictably, four of the 10 were intended for Michael Floyd.

Rees threw 13 passes to Floyd in the second half of Saturday's loss. Crist attempted three to his star target in the first.

"Maybe I throw to him sometimes when I shouldn't," Rees admitted Tuesday of his penchant to fire to Floyd. "But as long as he's out there, we're a better team with the ball in his hands."

In a six-game span that includes relief efforts vs. Tulsa in 2010 and South Florida last week, Rees and Floyd have connected for 47 receptions, 555 yards, and eight touchdowns. In three of those six contests, Floyd caught 11 or 12 passes – only seven other Irish players have secured 11 or more receptions in a game in program history.

Only Floyd has done so more than once – in each instance from the right arm of Rees.

In two of Rees' four starts he's been error free, and fired eight touchdowns in his four career starts. Also notable is that Rees and the Irish never attempted more than 32 throws in those victories – Rees fired 34 passes in the second half vs. South Florida; a whopping 54 in his full relief stint vs. Tulsa.

Tommy Rees throws a beautiful fade pattern, corner route, and seam pass. He also needs a running game to carry half the load if the Irish are to reach their goals this fall.

Throw for Show; Run for BCS Dough

Most Irish fans are aware of the statistic: Notre Dame has won 27 consecutive games when it out-rushes its opponent. Brian Kelly's Irish are 5-0 in such instances, and in seven of the head coach's eight career wins in South Bend, Notre Dame attempted fewer than 40 passes.

Just twice have the Irish thrown more than 35 passes under Kelly and won a football game (Boston College and Pittsburgh last year).

A quick look at Notre Dame's 10 highest number of passes attempted in a single game includes names such as Hanratty, Theismann, Quinn, Clausen, Crist, and Rees. It also includes 10 Irish defeats.

Notre Dame has won just three of its last 10 (3 of 11 if you count Saturday's combined QB production) outings when its quarterback throws in excess of 300 yards.

Michael Floyd has compiled ten 100-yard receiving games over the last two seasons (plus Saturday). The Irish are 3-7 in those contests.

Notre Dame doesn't only need to run the football to help Tommy Rees; it needs to run the football to win, period.

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