Entering the game to a chorus of boos in relief of starter Everett Golson, Rees drove the Irish 55 yards in 12 plays, a drive capped off by a game-winning field goal by surprise starter Kyle Brindza with just 11 seconds remaining.
Brindza kicked after a Thursday groin injury scratched senior starter Nick Tausch from the contest.
"Kyle had to step in, that's why I'm so proud of my guys: Next Man In," said Kelly. "Went in and got the job done."
Golson appeared to do enough too, giving the Irish all he had for 58 minutes, but a crucial fumble that set up Purdue's game-tying score with 2:12 remaining, and four consecutive possessions previous without points sent the promising dual-threat triggerman to the bench in favor of the twice-beaten out, once suspended, often knocked down, but never out, Rees.
Talk about alligator blood.
"That's what I knew about him and his makeup, his moxie," said Kelly of Rees and his response to the pointed jeers. "Does he have all of the elite skills? No. But he's a gamer. He'll do anything. Those guys in that locker room will go to the wall for him. They'll do anything, because he's a great teammate."
Prior to Rees' heroics was an inspired if uneven effort from Golson, who late in the second quarter had accounted for 196 of his team's 210 total yards. He finished with 289 through the air on 21 completions, missing just 10 throws. Five sacks and the aforementioned crucial fumble took its toll.
"He had trouble gripping the ball, I think he could have probably still have (played)," said Kelly of Golson's late removal. "I just felt like two-minute drive, the experience that (Rees) has…Everett was having a hard time gripping the football.
"This is not going to be an excuse for Everett that he'll pulled out because of injury. We also made the decision with the flow of the game that Tommy could come in there and manage our two-minute (offense) and he did a great job.
"I will further say, there is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State. We know we have assets at that position with Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees."
A Big Step BackNotre Dame's opening week offensive calling card -- a power rushing attack -- was not an option Saturday, not with an opponent's game plan devised to control it or the manpower to do so.
"We had no choice," said Kelly of the preponderance of passes (39 compared to 23 last week). "The ball had to be thrown because of the coverages. They played Cover One, Man-Free, Cover One, Man-Free. Once in awhile they'd throw in a little bit of Cover One and Man-Free," he joked.
The Irish gained just 56 yards on 32 carries as Purdue senior defensive tackle made life miserable for Notre Dame 5th-year seniors Mike Golic, Jr., and Braxston Cave inside. Short finished with four tackles and two sacks and lead a blitzkrieg by the Boilers defensive front that included five sacks and eight stops behind the line of scrimmage.
"They gave us a tough game, hats off to them," said left tackle Zack Martin, the lone offensive representative available from the Irish locker room post game. "They gave us some challenges all day with different looks. They played very hard."
Nearly spotless in the season opening rout of Navy, Notre Dame's offensive line struggled mightily, not only between the whistles, but before and after, with an illegal shift, personal foul, four false starts, and an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty (declined) on their docket.
"I was a little disappointed we had a couple sloppy errors," said Kelly. "Our communication's got to get better with our quarterback and the offensive line. We'll make that a point of emphasis this week in making sure we're communicating on the field with some of those cadences."
Forward StillPolar opposite of its offensive line's performance was the sterling effort from Notre Dame's other stated strength, its defensive front.
Led by sophomore wunderkind Stephon Tuitt and a pair of juniors, Louis Nix and Prince Shembo, the latter of which occupied a 4-3 defensive end position for the bulk of the contest, the Irish defensive line totaled 22 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 pass break-ups, and five QB hurries. It was Shembo's edge pressure and Tuitt's subsequent sack at the Irish goal line that forced Purdue to settle for a field goal late in the third quarter, keeping Notre Dame's margin a more comfortable seven points.
Tuitt became the first Irish player to record two sacks in consecutive games since Victor Abiamiri turned the trick in 2006.
The efforts of Tuitt, Nix and Shembo were crucial in the wake of injuries suffered by 5th-year senior captain Kapron Lewis-Moore (calf), and promising freshman defensive end Sheldon Day (dehydration).
"We understand that people go down; we work hard," said co-captain Manti Te'o, the defense's lone speaking representative post-game. "We train hard to prepare ourselves for any situation that may appear in the game. Losing Kap and (Jamoris) Slaughter early in the game was a big loss for our team, but the guys who backed them up really came in and did a great job for us and helped us come out with a victory today."
Slaughter injured his shoulder on a vicious hit that broke up a would-be third-down conversion pass in the second quarter.
"Really thought our defense played well today," said Kelly. "I think they limited Purdue to just over 100 yards in the second half ().
"The story for me as the head coach is our mantra: Next Man In," he continued. "We had seven guys go down today; our key players. We had two captains go down. A leader in the secondary in Jamoris Slaughter; our guys kept fighting. The next guy came in and battled."
They battled to 2-0 for the first time since 2008 and just the 12th time in the program's last 30 seasons, but that battle revealed previously undiscovered warts as well. Navy's undersized defensive front won't return to the schedule until 2013. Awaiting instead is one of the nation's best rush defenses in Michigan State; the Spartans host the Irish next weekend in East Lansing.
The undefeated Irish have one week to prepare for the best team they've faced to date. Better teams dot the schedule still. But this Saturday night will be one of celebration for Irish fans, muted as it may be.
"As you know, the story finishes with Tommy Rees coming in for Golson and leading us on a two-minute drive to win the game. I'm good to go. A good day for Notre Dame football."
Good not great, but a win that saps a fan base of its early-season delusions of grandeur should be enjoyed nonetheless.