- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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There were many ways that Brian Kelly could have tripped over a question about the Notre Dame Stadium atmosphere, one that was asked five days before his team's home opener.
"No way. No way," Kelly said last Tuesday. "I went to a Catholic school with the nuns that had the rulers, OK? I'm not going to get hit with a ruler again. I think it's up to me to provide a better atmosphere in that stadium. We win games, it will be nice and loud. Thank you, nice try."
Boo birds that rained down from the stands when Tommy Rees entered Saturday's contest suggest Kelly did not exactly live up to his word, despite his game-winning decision. The third-year Irish coach handled a question about that situation even more delicately.
"I'm so focused on what we're doing that I don't have time to deal with who's yelling my name," Kelly said. "Because they yell my name a lot, too. I don't know if you knew that. It usually doesn't end with a good adjective.
"We're so focused on the game and calling the game, our fans can do what they want to do. We have great fans. Our students were awesome the other night at the pep rally. I think we had 15,000. So I love our guys, how they represent us."
Kelly, for the uninitiated, has an early background in politics. As evidenced by those two answers, he can one-line his way through many issues, putting all at ease with a quick smile and deft touch, traits that may be held in higher regard at Notre Dame than at any other college football power.
A man smart enough to have once taken an admission test for the CIA, Kelly is aware of the consequences of all of his actions. He acknowledged Sunday that his decision to limit interviews to two players after Saturday's game did not win him any popularity contests.
"I know at times that might put me at odds with you guys, and I understand that," he said.
So Kelly had to have known the potential ramifications of inserting Rees for Everett Golson on Notre Dame's final drive Saturday, even before a number of uneasy fans reminded him.
Golson is Kelly's first quarterback recruit at Notre Dame, an ideal fit for the spread offense whose physical skills are probably the best among the team's signal callers. Forced by Purdue to be more than a game-manager in his second start, Golson threw for 289 yards and was responsible for both of his team's touchdowns.
Rees, the elder statesmen of the position, turned the ball over 19 times last season before his spring arrest at an off-campus party. He ultimately took himself out of contention for the Week 1 starting spot and the full camp of reps that comes with that competition.
Yet Golson lost a fumble deep in his own territory, moved just 42 yards over five drives without the banged-up Tyler Eifert and was forced to check with Kelly for a number of second-half pre-play adjustments. Notre Dame was suddenly tied with one of the non-name programs on its schedule, and Kelly saw a game his team had to have force him into an unexpected decision he had to make.
With no timeouts left, he no longer toed the party line. Kelly sent Rees in, the junior delivered in the two-minute drill, the Irish won and the coach immediately said there is no quarterback controversy, that Golson is still the starter.
Now Notre Dame is 2-0 for the first time in four years. And Kelly's balancing act may be facing its stiffest test yet.
"I see it as if we feel like Tommy can help us win a game or he can come in a situation where we believe it's the right fit, then he'll be prepared to do so," he said Sunday. "I used this baseball analogy: We like our starters to finish the game. We want them to go all nine innings. Occasionally we might need some help. Maybe we need long relief, maybe we need short relief. I don't want to take anything off the table, but we'd like our starter to start it and finish it."
14dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf