What Saturday's 28-24 home loss to Michigan proved is what was suspected all along, though mostly ignored amid the optimism Kelly's hiring inspired in South Bend: the Fighting Irish don't have a fighting chance without junior quarterback Dayne Crist.
When an injured Crist did not return to the field following an Irish touchdown in the first quarter, the parking break was pulled on Brian Kelly's warp-speed spread offense.
"I think anytime your starting quarterback goes [down] there's always that first sense of, 'Oh my gosh, our starting quarterback's out,'" Kelly said.
That's the "Ward Cleaver" version of what Irish fans were really thinking when Rees, a freshman lining up under center for the first time, floated a flea-flicker pass into the hands of Michigan's Jonas Mouton on his first career attempt.
Rees lasted five plays. Next.
Montana, a junior who's never started at the college level, not even last year at Pasadena City College, failed to clear the fence at the end of the runway on his first two throws, smacking the paws of Michigan's defensive linemen. He threw an interception midway through the second quarter and what little confidence he had vaporized.
An underthrown pass that could have gone for a score with just a few seconds to play in the half did find the hands of Theo Riddick, who went out of bounds at the 3-yard line. Kelly opted to go for a TD instead of taking a 3-pointer and Montana's pass to end the quarter overshot the end zone by nearly 10 yards.
"I did a poor job preparing them," Kelly said. "Yeah, I gotta do a better job to put both those guys in there. We know who our backup quarterbacks, in terms of the candidacy, who they are. I just have to do a better job getting them ready. Maybe created a package that was just for them and had that been the case, maybe they could have managed the game a little better."
Crist took a blow to the head on Notre Dame's opening drive, which he finished off with a 1-yard sneak. Blurred vision in his right eye kept him shelved until the start of the third quarter.
He gave the Irish a 20/20 look the rest of the way, finishing 13-for-25 for 277 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 95-yarder to tight end Kyle Rudolph pulled the turf out from under the Wolverines with under four minutes to play. Ultimately, it wasn't enough to counter the mistakes made while Crist stood alone on the sideline trying to regain focus and the unearthly performance of Michigan QB Denard Robinson.
"Incredibly tough," Crist said about being a spectator. "You want to be out there competing with your guys. And it's awful anytime you're on the sideline. That's not where you want to be. It was definitely a tough situation."
It's a situation that popped up sooner than expected, but one that was inevitable for an Irish offense that exposes Crist -- already a work in progress -- to plenty of contact.
For now, Kelly's "Next Man In" mantra means little if the line is empty behind his starter.