Tommy Rees ends Irish career on top

NEW YORK -- Notre Dame finished a disappointing season with a win Saturday at Yankee Stadium. For Tommy Rees, it was a fitting end to an up-and-down career.

The senior quarterback completed 27 of 47 passes for 319 yards, leading the Fighting Irish to a 29-16 win over Rutgers in the fourth-annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

“Hats off to Rutgers for playing a great game, but I’m really proud of the way we persevered and were able to pull it out,” Rees said.

It certainly wasn’t pretty. The heavily favored Fighting Irish mounted long drive after long drive but repeatedly had to settle for field goals. They racked up 258 more yards of offense (494-236) and nearly twice as many first downs (31-16) as the Scarlet Knights, but the game was tied at halftime and Notre Dame led by only three points with under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

That’s when Rees engineered the game-clinching drive, leading his team 79 yards in 10 plays -- capped off by a three-yard touchdown run by Tarean Folston -- to put away Rutgers.

At this time last year, Notre Dame was preparing to play Alabama in the BCS National Championship on Jan. 7. This year, Notre Dame’s season ended three days after Christmas, with a record of 9-4 and thoughts of what might have been.

“A good year that could have been a great year,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said when asked to assess this season. “Some really good victories. ... A couple of missed opportunities in some games where we very easily could have been a team that’s looking at double-digit wins, and that’s where we want to be every year.”

Kelly’s comments -- and the fact that they don’t sound outlandish -- show just how far Notre Dame has come in his first four years at the helm. Kelly’s 37 wins tie him with Lou Holtz and Dan Devine for the most by a Notre Dame coach in his first four seasons.

Correspondingly, Notre Dame’s current senior class finished with 37 wins -- the most since the Class of 1994.

That group includes wide receiver TJ Jones, who had 1,042 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on the season entering the Pinstripe Bowl. Jones had five receptions for 66 yards against Rutgers plus four carries for 16 yards and a touchdown. The five catches moved him into second place on Notre Dame’s career receptions list with 181.

And Jones came back in the game despite suffering a second-degree shoulder sprain.

“I wasn’t gonna be done for the day -- not with my last game in a Notre Dame uniform,” Jones said. “I had to come back and contribute.”

That class also includes Rees, who wasn’t even supposed to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback this season. He stepped in due to injury his freshman year and started 12 games as a sophomore but lost the job to freshman Everett Golson as a junior and figured to play behind Golson as a senior -- until Golson was suspended for academic reasons.

Rees stepped in again and ended up throwing for 3,257 yards with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions -- becoming only the third Notre Dame quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.

His erratic play over the years might have infuriated Notre Dame fans at times, and Rees was far from perfect against Rutgers; in fact, an offensive lineman, Zack Martin, won the game’s MVP award.

But numbers don’t lie. Rees finished his career third in school history in passing yards (7,670) and second in touchdown passes (61) and joined Tom Clements, Joe Montana, Tony Rice and Rick Mirer as the only Notre Dame quarterbacks with two bowl game victories as a starter.

“I’m a Tommy Rees fan for life,” Kelly said. “He’s gonna go keep chasing that football dream. He’s gonna play in the East-West Shrine Game, and he’ll keep trying to play the game as long as he can. But I told him he’s got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly any time.”

The last time Notre Dame played at Yankee Stadium was three years ago -- a 27-3 win over Army. A freshman named Tommy Rees, making just the second start of his college career, completed 13 of 20 passes for 213 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Afterward, the wide-eyed freshman gushed about being given Derek Jeter’s locker in the Yankees clubhouse.

Three years later, Rees looked and sounded like a different person.

“To be honest, I’m not as emotional as I thought I’d be after my last game,” he said. “I’m just really enjoying the moment.”

Asked to evaluate his just-completed collegiate career, Rees politely declined.

“I’ll let you guys [in the media] judge that,” Rees said. “As long as I’ve got the respect and the commitment from my teammates and coaches, that’s all that’s ever mattered to me. I know I can leave here with my chin held high. I love the game of football. It’s pretty special to start at quarterback at Notre Dame, and that’s something I’ll hold with me for the rest of my life.”

Say what you want about Tommy Rees, but he finished on a high note.