No. 3 Notre Dame exposes Pittsburgh’s deep flaws in 45-3 rout

Ben Skowronek Pittsburgh
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Notre Dame found a downfield passing game for two scores, notched a special teams touchdown and completely shut down Pittsburgh’s offense. In other words, absolutely everything went right for the No. 3 Irish (5-0, 4-0 ACC) in their 45-3 breeze by Pittsburgh (3-4, 2-4) on Saturday.

This was supposed to be a genuine challenge for Notre Dame, both on paper and in reality, a first this season. It was not.

“We needed to play fearless, we needed to play with great energy, and we needed playmakers,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We saw all those three things today. This is a very good glimpse of what this football team is capable of.”

A week after the Irish passing game may as well have not existed, fifth-year quarterback Ian Book connected with graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek for two deep touchdowns, both times beating the Panthers’ usual one-on-one coverage with athletic catches followed by untouched dashes toward the goal line.

By the time Skowronek finished his 73-yard jaunt to give Notre Dame a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter, too much damage had been done for Pittsburgh to ponder a comeback.

“He went up and took the ball away and set a great tone for how we were going to move forward,” Kelly said.

For that matter, Skowronek’s first score, of 34 yards, was probably too much for the Panthers to rally from.

They gained positive yards on just two of 12 first-half first-downs. To put that another way, 10 times before halftime Pittsburgh faced 2nd-and-10 or worse. (Update: Adding in the second-half numbers on this first-down tidbit … The Panthers had nine first-down plays in the second half, and netted zero yards. That makes for 21 first-down plays with eight yards gained total, only three positive plays.)

Pittsburgh rushed for 63 yards on 17 carries (sacks adjusted) and converted 3 of 13 third downs. The only reason the Panthers’ red-zone offense did not also become an issue is because quarterback Joey Yellen never got them into the red zone, getting past the Notre Dame 45-yard line only twice, one resulting in a field goal and the other an ill-advised punt, a poor decision given how much effort it took Pittsburgh to advance that far up the field in the first place.

“I’m going to start off giving Notre Dame credit, period,” Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “They’re the No. 3 team in the country. They played like it. They’re as good a football team I have seen walk on the field in the last six years. They’re talented from front to back on both sides of the ball, and we got beat by a better football team, period.”

Book finished with 312 yards on 16-of-30 passing, a third touchdown finding freshman tight end Michael Mayer, part of his five-catch, 73-yard afternoon. Pushing the ball downfield has been an issue for Book all season, if not his entire three-year starting career, but facing one of the better defenses in the country, he had six completions of 20 yards or longer, only one of them a short pass broken long by the receiver after the reception.

The Irish ground game did not dominate the Panthers as it did Notre Dame’s first four opponents, partly a reflection of Pittsburgh’s dominant defensive line and partly a luxury afforded by the passing success. Kelly anticipated as much, and set specific goals for the Irish rushing attack: Avoid negative plays, convert short-yardage situations and be effective in the red zone.

A pair of two-yard touchdown rushes, one each from sophomore Kyren Williams and C’Bo Flemister, fulfilled that last thought, while the simple facts that Notre Dame went 11-of-18 and third down and the lead backs lost a total of 12 yards on their 33 carries covered the rest.

“Those were the three goals of the running game,” Kelly said. “We were going to be able to carve out enough in the running game that was going to allow us to do the things that we wanted to do.”

The things the Irish had not done, namely, connect with Skowronek downfield.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The Panthers’ work was already cut out for them and probably beyond their reach when down 21-3, but they had possession at their own 36-yard line with 1:22 remaining before halftime. Three timeouts in hand, Pittsburgh had a vague chance to score and then do so again after receiving the second-half kickoff.

In fact, the Panthers had just gained a first down on an 11-yard rush, shockingly enough compared to their other 11 first-down attempts in the half (which netted a loss of three yards). But the next rush resulted in a four-yard loss, and the back-to-back carries innately suggested a want to run out the clock, anyway. Except Notre Dame had another idea.

A rush and a short completion each kept the clock running heading into 4th-and-15, at which point Kelly called timeout, simply to force Pittsburgh to punt.

“I’m never content,” Narduzzi said. “But with 1:22, I don’t feel like we were going to get into a two-minute drill and do anything crazy. … Didn’t want to go slinging it around the park and see something bad happen.”

Something bad happened.

The Panthers could have been aggressive in that possession. They could have tried to cut into Notre Dame’s lead, similar to how Louisville scrambled to at the end of the first half a week ago. Instead, the punting unit took to the field, and Irish sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey blocked his second career punt, adding some emphasis to a dominant first half. If the 21-3 lead was not insurmountable, the 28-3 deficit assuredly was.

STAT OF THE GAME

Yellen is not Pittsburgh’s preferred starting quarterback — veteran Kenny Pickett sidelined by an ankle injury — and he was helming an offense both desperate and at a talent disadvantage. But Notre Dame intercepting him three times is still a welcome sign for Clark Lea’s defense, which had just one interception (sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford against Florida State) through four games.

Junior linebacker Bo Bauer was among the last people expected to start those festivities, but he showed sure hands in doing so, before senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah snagged one and graduate transfer cornerback Nick McCloud eventually got in on the takeaway fun.

“Anytime you can turn the ball over, that’s great,” senior defensive tackle Kurt Hinish said. “We were just happy we showed up and played loose today, played free, were running around the field.

“Our [defensive backs] are tired of waiting for the ball to come to the receivers. They’re just starting to take the ball now. That’s the mindset we have.”

Lea’s defense has been the Irish strength for three years now — this was the first time since a two separate stretches in 2012 that Notre Dame held consecutive opponents to single digits — but at some point the turnovers needed to start popping up for the Irish. The blocked punt is not technically a turnover, but Notre Dame still ended plus-three in turnover margin.

PLAYER(S) OF THE GAME
Cracking 300 yards for the seventh time in his career, plenty of time will be spent on Book in the coming days. Some already has been up top. Deservedly so.

But another grouping of the Irish will fly beneath the radar, even though their success underscores the long-term strengths of the program and how it has been constructed in this four-year revival. Notre Dame’s best position groups for the last few years have consistently been its offensive and defensive lines.

The offensive line is currently regarded as one of the, if not the, best in the country. The defensive line does not rise to that level, but its depth continues to stand out. Consider:

Junior end Justin Ademilola: Four tackles with one for loss.
Junior end Ovie Oghoufo: Three tackles with half a sack.
Sophomore end Foskey: Two tackles with half a sack.
Junior tackle Jayson Ademilola, sophomore tackle Jacob Lacey: One tackle apiece.

Their success stands out on its own, but it also creates more success for the starters.

“Everything we do is for the brotherhood,” said Hinish, finishing with one tackle himself. “There are times I definitely don’t want to come out, and some of it is just being selfish. I have to understand that I’m not as fresh as the other guys coming into the game.

“Obviously we have to get those guys in to make some plays.”

Particularly in a year when a position group can see its conditioning hampered for two weeks, as happened to this exact unit, that depth can revive its effectiveness.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
“[Book] was very unhappy last week, but this week, all the fruits of his labor paid off. I can’t wait to play with him moving forward. He’s a hell of a football player, and he’s a winner” — Skowronek.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
10:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ben Skowronek 34-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Pittsburgh 0. (11 plays, 75 yards, 4:52)
7:38 — Pittsburgh field goal. Alex Kessman 45 yards. Notre Dame 7, Pittsburgh 3. (10 plays, 37 yards, 2:30)

Second Quarter
10:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Skowronek 73-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Pittsburgh 3. (4 plays, 87 yards, 1:29)
1:29 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Pittsburgh 3. (8 plays, 46 yards, 3:42)
0:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Isaiah Foskey punt block recovery. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Pittsburgh 3.

Third Quarter
7:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 21 yards. Notre Dame 31, Pittsburgh 3. (14 plays, 72 yards, 6:10)
4:22 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 14-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Pittsburgh 3. (4 plays, 49 yards, 2:01)
2:42 — Notre Dame touchdown. C'Bo Flemister 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Pittsburgh 3. (4 plays, 35 yards, 1:33)

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“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,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

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

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.