LOS ANGELES -- There he was, baby-faced Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, leading Notre Dame to a victory at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time in 10 years.
It wasn’t pretty -- not with the true freshman responsible for all four Irish turnovers in the 20-16 win -- but it got the job done.
And, in doing so, Rees looked more like some famed Irish quarterbacks of old than the 18-year-old he really is.
“Tommy, he may look like he’s 15 years old, but he plays like a veteran,” said sophomore linebacker Manti Te’o. “He’s very poised out there and he has good composure. With the guys that he has around him, he does a great job.”
Great might be a little bit of an overstatement, but Rees was obviously good enough to win. And his line -- 20 completions in 32 attempts, 149 yards, two touchdowns and three picks -- was good enough for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
Kelly said after the game that Rees did everything the coaching staff asked him to do.
“I thought the best thing that he did was that he just kept competing,” he said. “He never, ever, at one time, lost his focus on what we wanted to do.
“He kept competing, and that’s all we wanted him to do.”
Keeping up with the persona he’s displayed so far this season, Rees had more negative than positive to say about his performance.
“Obviously there are ups and downs in football, but today there were a little bit more downs than I would’ve liked,” said Rees afterward. “You just gotta stay focused and level-headed – you can’t get too down.”
He was doing just fine at the start, picking apart a shaky USC secondary that was at times using a walk-on to defend Michael Floyd early. His halftime stat line included a 73 percent completion percentage and two touchdowns.
Rees imploded a bit in the second half, but Floyd came away impressed -- once again, he said -- with Rees’ staying power and willingness to come back fighting.
“He’s a freshman quarterback,” said Floyd, who pulled down a career-high-tying 11 receptions as Rees’ No. 1 target. “He’s a little jittery. But he played a very good game today, kept his composure for the most part.”
Floyd said he pulled Rees aside in the third quarter after an Irish three-and-out and told him that he was going to lead the Irish to victory.
“And that’s what we did,” Floyd said.
Rees is piling up the accolades for the Irish. After Saturday’s game, he’s third all-time for Notre Dame freshman quarterbacks in completions, fifth in yards, second in touchdowns and first in completion percentage.
And he’s still got plenty of room for improvement.
“He’s learning,” Kelly says freely. “He’s gonna see this film and he’ll be better because of it.”
With six minutes to go in the fourth quarter and Notre Dame down three points, the Coliseum video board displayed a zoomed-in shot of Rees in the huddle, waiting to head to the line of scrimmage and begin what would become the game-winning 77-yard drive.
Said senior linebacker Brian Smith of seeing his freshman teammate on the big screen: “For some reason it reminded me of Tom Brady -- just a calm, composed quarterback leading his team.”
The drive wasn’t all him, of course -- running backs Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood each contributed big runs to the cause -- but Rees got things started in Irish territory by finding Floyd for a key 11-yard reception.
And he found him again later on to bring the Irish down to USC’s 5-yard line. When Notre Dame sealed it with a Harrison Smith interception a few minutes later and Rees kneeled to end the game, Irish teammates came rushing in from the sideline to congratulate him.
Said Rees of putting a comeback like that one -- over USC, no less -- on his resume at this early point in his career: “It’s pretty nice to have, but it’s a team game and I just try to do my part.”
Told of Rees’ comments, Smith shook his head in mock disgust, incredulous at what the freshman was able to do.
“That’s Tommy Rees for you,” he said. “Tough Chicago kid.
“I’m looking forward