- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Maybe if Tommy Rees were like the rest of us, he would have laughed to himself throughout the second half Saturday.
Maybe, with his hoodie on and his night done after a vicious third-quarter hit, he would have looked out to the field and watched a Notre Dame offense that had been forced to run six meaningful drives without him. Maybe he would have struggled to contain an I-know-something-you-don't smirk as the Fighting Irish, accounting for penalties, netted 30 total yards and gained one first down in his absence. Maybe he would have offered a hearty chuckle when seeing his backup and friend, Andrew Hendrix, misfire on all four of his pass attempts.
Yes, Notre Dame's offense was that ugly without Rees in its 14-10 win here over rival USC. And yes, the Irish's defense deserves plenty of credit for bailing out the offense with its back against the wall time and time again, even if the Trojans -- already without top running back Tre Madden -- lost star receiver Marqise Lee for the second half and did themselves no favors with several costly penalties late.
But a glimpse at life without Rees left everybody outside the program eating their words for most of the second half. Notre Dame wasn't just bad offensively; it was downright brutal, with even the sure-handed Cam McDaniel coughing up the ball late and not a soul among the raucous sellout crowd exhaling until the final zeroes were on the clock after Hendrix's two kneel-downs on his seventh and final drive.
And as it turns out, Rees had been one step ahead of everyone. His biggest play had actually come at halftime, two drives before he would be on the receiving end of a big knock from USC linebacker Lamar Dawson with just more than nine minutes to play in the third quarter. Rees was slow to even sit up, then walked gingerly off the field under his own power. He was standing up on the sidelines being interrogated by team medical personnel before heading to the locker room for further evaluation. Coach Brian Kelly said afterward that Rees had suffered a neck strain and was all there mentally, and that the team should know more in the next 24 hours.
But when the teams had gone to their locker rooms for halftime Saturday, Rees had taken it upon himself to deliver a speech that proved to be prescient in a game that featured no scoring during the final 30 minutes.
"It was a passionate speech, one of the more passionate things I've ever heard Tommy say," captain TJ Jones said. "It was really, 'Just keep your head in the game, don't give up. We've got this, 30 minutes wasn't enough. We need another 30 to win this game.' He had a lot of the guys almost in tears. It's the first time Tommy spoke out like that, and it was definitely emotional."
It had come after one of Rees' better performances to date. The senior finished the game 14-of-21 passing for 166 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers over the course of one half and one more series. He had run the offense at a much quicker pace, and the unit even left some points on the board on the game's first drive after McDaniel failed to reach the end zone on four consecutive runs.
Rees had also passed Rick Mirer on the school's all-time passing yards list, becoming the fifth Notre Dame quarterback to eclipse the 6,000-yard mark for his career.
"I think it does say a lot about the kid and his perseverance," Kelly said of the milestone. "He's just a tough kid, and he just keeps battling. I'm sure he'll look back on that a little bit later and be able to point out, 'Hey, I did play at Notre Dame and I wasn't that bad.' "
No kidding. From stepping up for an injured Dayne Crist and leading Notre Dame to four straight wins as a freshman, to surviving a turnover-plagued 2011; from getting arrested and then being relegated to a glorified graduate assistant role as Everett Golson took control, to then bailing Golson out late throughout last year's 12-0 run, Rees has nearly seen it all.
He has taken plenty of heat, too, whether it was getting booed by his home fans in his 2012 debut or withstanding a recent social-media firestorm that is coming his way only because of the poor academic judgment that the man initially in front of him displayed this past spring.
Golson, by the way, does not have to worry about schoolwork or bad weather the way Rees does, as he is training with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield out in sunny San Diego.
From there, Golson could see what the rest of us saw once his old teammate was no longer an option against the Trojans.
"As you could tell, our performance in the second half was a little difficult to adjust," tight end Troy Niklas said. "But I think we were able to make do with what we could."
Rees might have provided that extra lift just moments earlier, the son of an NFL scout always worrying about what's next.
"He was just kind of reiterating what the coaches had said, and probably a little something else," team captain Zack Martin said of Rees' halftime speech. "But we had an opportunity to beat SC at home and we hadn't done that in a long time. But to be able to win three out of four years for this class is pretty special."
Whatever checks Notre Dame had written to the devil before last season had been cashed since the calendar turned to 2013 -- Manti Te'o's girlfriend hoax, four notable transfers and Golson's suspension getting sandwiched between the Alabama beatdown and the two losses the Irish had suffered through six games this season.
Then came Saturday night against USC, and everyone got a look at just how much worse it could get if the starter everyone wanted gone could no longer return.
16dPaula Lavigne and Nicole Noren