Tommy Rees 2010
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30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

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A decade later, the celebration has been greatly exaggerated. Retellings claim Notre Dame fans stormed the field after the Irish upset No. 15 Utah back in 2010. That 28-3 victory was, after all, Notre Dame’s first win against an AP top-25 team in its last 12 tries. It came via the arm of a certain freshman quarterback and halted a skid in Brian Kelly’s first Irish season.

That was certainly enough to warrant a raucous rushing, right? Claiming such is only logical, right?

It’s not what happened. The part about the first-time starting quarterback was true, and it led to a four-game winning streak to cap Kelly’s debut. But the joy was much more restrained than that.

Notre Dame fans began jumping onto the field with University permission. It was not a rebellion; it was condoned. Seniors in the student section would get to take to the field after the game, mill about for 20 or 30 minutes, many for the first time in their undergraduate careers. Their four years had been particularly rough, the worst four-year period in 132 years of Irish history. That 24-26 stretch included a dismal 13-14 record at Notre Dame Stadium.

So those seniors hopped down to the field, two at a time and three at a time. Their shouts were more a culmination of four years than they were rejoicing at beating the Utes.

In the front row of the section directly next to the seniors, one junior tried to pull the wool over an usher’s eyes. Exuberantly and excitedly, that friend kept pointing to the students on the field, insisting he was a senior and he could join them. The usher knew better.

The junior gesticulated with a Lou Holtz-era baseball cap, his gestures getting bigger as he could see a trace of doubt in the usher’s eyes. Eventually, the yellow jacket stepped out of the way, not as certain about where the senior section ended as he had been just five minutes earlier.

The entire junior class streamed down the stairs behind their gleeful leader. Ask him about it now and he’ll smirk, vaguely remembering the rapid passion of his bald-faced lies to that usher.

That storming of the field was so orderly, the students let the Notre Dame band have its usual space for its post-game performance.

More a calm gathering of friends than a frenzied celebration. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Yet, the decade-long exaggeration will last further into the future. If Tommy Rees excels as the Irish offensive coordinator, that win against Utah will become the origin story of his coaching success. Dayne Crist had torn his patella tendon in the previous game, and Kelly’s first season in South Bend was falling apart in several ways. As a 5.5-point underdog, even he did not want to lean on Rees.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

That focus led to Notre Dame rushing 29 times for 127 yards, a 4.38 yards per carry average, functional but hardly exemplary. Instead, the Irish were sparked by Robert Blanton blocking a punt and returning it six yards for a touchdown to give them a 7-3 lead.

“We were struggling, and that jump-started the whole sideline and team,” Rees said. “From that point, we started rolling.”

Rees took over, at least as much as a freshman in his first start can while not trusting his arm strength. Rees completed 13-of-20 passes for 129 yards and three touchdowns. When Austin Collinsworth forced a fumble on the kickoff after halftime and Daniel Smith recovered it, Rees immediately connected with Duval Kamara for a 26-yard touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

Notre Dame had control. The victory was never in doubt in the final 30 minutes. The so-called charge did not develop from drama, but deception.

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