SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The secret to Tommy Rees' ability to step in without a moment's notice and lift Notre Dame out of its second deficit of the season is really no secret at all. It's plain on the sideline for all of his teammates to see. It's the reason why, when the trailing team's starting quarterback goes down in the final minutes with an undefeated season on the line, Manti Te'o said, the Irish "don't have any worries."
"It's just: OK, Tommy's in now," Te'o, one of four captains, said after Notre Dame's 20-13 overtime victory Saturday over Stanford.
"Good luck, defense."
"He's watching the game, relaying stuff to coaches," Tyler Eifert, another captain, said. "His knowledge of the game is so good that the coaches sometimes depend on him to talk to him [starting QB Everett Golson] and tell him what he's seeing out there for the sideline. He's focused on the game and not distracted during the game at all."
The clock showed 3 minutes, 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter when the white and gold helmets clashed at the Notre Dame 47-yard line, and the best backup quarterback in the country immediately went searching for his own headgear.
"Get your helmet and let's go," coach Brian Kelly recalled telling Rees. "He couldn't find his darn helmet."
That's as unprepared as the junior would be on a Saturday when he helped the Irish get to the season's halfway mark undefeated, completing 4 of 4 passes -- three of them in overtime -- in setting up Kyle Brindza's game-tying field goal before a 7-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Jones proved to be the deciding score in Notre Dame's sixth and most dramatic win of the season.
When Everett Golson was shaken up after a helmet-to-helmet hit from Stanford's Usua Amanam, his chance at lifting the Irish out of a three-point hole gave way to four support staff members crowding him on the sideline, his helmet off, his vision blurred from what Kelly later called a blow to the head.
The redshirt freshman's most uneven start of the year featured three fumbles but enough scrambling ability and resiliency against a hungry defense to keep Notre Dame alive, the calls for his backup to replace him coming the loudest after a fumble in his own end zone led to a Cardinal touchdown and the first Notre Dame deficit of the season.
And yet few have done more in a shorter period of time than Rees has in going from one of the most vilified students on Notre Dame's campus to one of the most popular, and not just because, like every No. 2 signal-caller on every level of this game, he is not the guy on the field making the mistakes. The twist has taken a sharper turn than the breaks that had so often been going against the Irish before this season.
Two closing jobs through Notre Dame's first five games of 2012 have Rees ready and waiting for his number to be called. But even he admitted afterward that this call was unlike any other so far.
Still, staying engaged while watching on the sideline for three-plus hours has not been the hard part for the aspiring coach.
"I like it," Rees said. "I love football and I love the game and I love learning and I love paying attention and trying to help Everett and the rest of the guys as much as I can. I stand with [Andrew] Hendrix most of the game and we talk about what the looks are out there. We just try to relay some of that."
Kelly added: "He's an incredible young man that he can stay so focused in the game, know what's going on during the game. At halftime I'm talking with him and Everett and he's pointing out some things about the outside coverages that we should maybe think about running, as well. He's just a very smart football player."
And so despite the biting rain pouring down shortly after his entrance -- creating a muck of a field -- and despite a big hit from Trent Murphy on the first play of overtime that threatened to unsettle things, Rees delivered.
He completed three consecutive passes in the extra session, his biggest a 16-yarder to Theo Riddick on a third-and-8 that saw the Irish staring at a long field goal in anything-but-simple conditions. He hit Jones for the score, and he watched his defense make a goal-line stand, celebrate, wait for an official's confirmation, then celebrate again.
Notre Dame is 6-0, with two different quarterbacks playing pivotal roles in three wins apiece.
"Not exactly, no, I didn't imagine this," Rees said. "For good, bad or different, it's worked out this way and it's going well, I guess, we are 6-0 I think."