Irish face QB controversy following loss

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There was nothing to prepare Tommy Rees to wait 2 hours, 53 minutes during a game that no one else thought he had any stake in.

At least not in the 12 days since coach Brian Kelly sat down with him and Dayne Crist and delivered the decision that would keep the sophomore on the sidelines when the Notre Dame offense took the field for the first time Saturday, a day that ended with a 23-20 loss to South Florida.

"Dayne will be the starter and I expect him to be the starter for 13 weeks," Kelly told reporters a day after making his choice. "We have great confidence in his ability to lead us to a championship."

Eleven days, five turnovers and a 5-hour, 59-minute game later, Kelly, Reese and Crist find themselves at the same crossroads they entered preseason practices with. A fork in the road that was only supposed to arise had one of Crist's two surgically repaired knees not withstood the challenge of live-game action.

Crist looked fine health-wise, and everyone can be thankful for that. But nearly 11 months without game action and an inability to generate any momentum on an offense that looked so good so early has re-opened the battle for the No. 1 quarterback spot.

Distraction, Tommy?

"We have no choice," the sophomore said. "As the quarterback you're the leader, and you can't have a distraction like that take over the team. It's a long season and we can't let that get a hold of us."

Kelly didn't need to waste a moment of his team's 2-hour, 10-minute version of halftime before informing Nos. 10 and 11 of the change to open the third quarter.

A 16-0 deficit, a pair of turnovers in the red zone and four three-and-outs -- including three straight to end the first half -- was all Kelly needed to see before yanking his starter.

After the rain had subsided, after the 12-and-a-half-minute warm-up period had elapsed and after much of the 220th straight home sellout crowd had left and re-entered Notre Dame Stadium, Rees trotted out with the Irish offense at the 13:32 mark of the third quarter, much to the surprise of the teammates he took the huddle with.

"It's nothing that we haven't seen, so we know what we're gonna get," said running back Cierre Wood, whose 104 yards made him the first Irish back to eclipse the century mark since 2009. "As soon as he came out, 'All right, let's do this. It's time to move.'"

Oh, Rees knew the drill. The circumstances were different from Oct. 30, 2010, against Tulsa, sure. In that game he had to lift an offense that was looking for guidance after Crist went down with a ruptured patella tendon in his left knee that ended his season. Saturday he was faced with the same task when Crist simply couldn't get it done after his most promising drive, his first one, ended with a 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown and a 7-0 deficit, setting the tone for a frustrating first half.

The results last year and Saturday were similar for Rees, both ending in losses after high passing numbers, dazzling touchdown tosses and head-scratching interceptions.

"Completely," Rees said when asked how last year helped him. "Getting plenty of time and plenty of experience has put me in a good spot."

Rees completed his first four passes Saturday, then he threw a costly pick in the red zone on a day the Irish simply couldn't punch it in from close.

He finished 24-of-34 for 296 yards with two touchdowns and two picks, numbers that came in one half. And numbers that don't reflect the Irish's several dropped balls or lack of a running threat down two scores the entire time.

"I don't want to put him in that situation," Kelly said of Rees. "I want him to have the luxury of a running game which we had established when Dayne was in there. We just did not complete the circle relative to all the other things that needed to occur.

"We believe we can run the football. If Tommy has a good running game, if we decide that he's our guy, that's going to take a lot of the load off of him. He didn't have that luxury in the second half, so it's really hard to evaluate it per se."

Crist was the first person Rees turned to after losing the starting job, and he said Crist was there supporting him throughout the second half after being replaced.

The little brother, big brother relationship has eased this dynamic for the rest of the offense, which has seemed to tune out what in many locker rooms would be a distraction.

But make no mistake about it. Notre Dame, a BCS bowl game hopeful, is staring at an 0-1 start and a textbook quarterback controversy as it prepares for the first night game in Michigan Stadium history next Saturday.

"We didn't expect to have to make this move, obviously, so it's going to require us to obviously evaluate the quarterback situation and make another decision," Kelly said. "This was a step back for us as it relates to where we thought we were going. We certainly did not believe or think that we would have to make the decision that we made today."