Extra time, review and crowds make for a very 2020 upset as Notre Dame tops Clemson

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After this week, a little extra waiting was only fitting. For that matter, so was the incumbent failing to hold on through the entire process despite a lead near the expected closing bell. And to risk drawing out the obvious analogy one step too far, of course the closing moments of Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime victory against No. 1 Clemson included extensive, unnecessary reviews.

If someone who knew nothing about football had tuned into NBC on Saturday night expecting to see a long-anticipated speech, just speaking hypothetically, and instead saw this instant classic, the first half would have left them thinking the Irish (7-0, 6-0 ACC) were the team on a 36-game regular-season winning streak. But the game did not end when sophomore running back Kyren Williams ran 65 yards on the first official snap for a touchdown, it did not pause when the NBC broadcast pivoted for 30 minutes to President-elect Joe Biden’s acceptance speech, and it did not end when Notre Dame entered halftime with a 23-13 lead. Instead, each development was over-scrutinized as the game grew closer and closer and eventually into a literal tie.

“Watching our team handle themselves in the fourth quarter, handling themselves when there was adversity, as a coach, those are special moments,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said on what had become Sunday. “We won the football game and I’m certainly excited about that, but more so, when you watch your players exhibit resolve and exhibit grit and refuse to lose a football game against the No. 1 team in the country … that’s the special part about coaching these guys at Notre Dame.”

Williams finished with 140 yards and three touchdowns, including a three-yard score in each overtime, on 23 carries, but even with his strong, and increasingly expected, showing, Notre Dame could not find a consistent offense, scoring offensively on that first play and then not again until mounting a last-minute touchdown drive to force overtime. That 59-minute lull allowed the Tigers (7-1, 6-1) a methodical second-half push.

Such calm and patience should be expected from a team that has appeared in the last five College Football Playoffs, winning two of them. While senior running back Travis Etienne was largely held in check, freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei picked up the slack, throwing for an Irish-opponent record 439 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-44 passing, his first big moment in a road game coming on a 53-yard scoring strike to Cornell Powell to bounce Clemson out of a 10-0 hole in the first quarter. A Notre Dame field goal later and the broadcast continued on the USA Network while Biden spoke. By the time viewers returned, halftime had arrived, and the Irish were comfortable with a 23-13 lead.

But Uiagalelei remained poised in the second half, directing four scoring drives and illustrating just how rich the Tigers are at quarterback.

“I would like to have [Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s] problems with those (Uiagalelei and Tigers star Trevor Lawrence, sidelined by the coronavirus),” Kelly said. “[Uiagalelei] is outstanding. His ability to throw the football is pretty special. If we played them again, we would have to do some things a little bit differently because he is so explosive as a quarterback.”

It took until 3:33 remained, but an Etienne touchdown run finally staked Clemson to a lead. Given Notre Dame had trailed for merely 19:47 through six games, the deficit was somewhat unfamiliar territory, and it showed on the next drive. The Irish gained 28 yards on six plays in a seemingly do-or-die moment. When Kelly spoke about adversity, he failed to mention this misstep, though it in turn created more adversity to play through.

The Tigers gifted Notre Dame life with a mishandled and fundamentally-flawed three-and-out that took just 22 seconds off the clock, and then it was time for Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book to demonstrate something that is becoming commonplace for him: a clutch drive. 91 yards in 92 seconds later, highlighted by a 53-yard completion to senior receiver Avery Davis and then a 4-yard scoring pass to him, and more time scrutinizing the Irish and the orange was needed.

“I know from playing (quarterback in) high school a smidge of the hate and criticism that the quarterback position gets, but [Book] handles it so greatly,” Davis said. “Just to see him go out there and perform like that, it was amazing.”

Williams took over again in overtime as he had at the outset, putting his head down and refusing to be stopped short of the goal line, no matter how many reviews of reviews — some seemingly sparked by a shouting maskless man — cast unnecessary doubt on the inevitable. And then Uiagalelei cracked, finally, in the second overtime, absorbing sacks on consecutive snaps to start Clemson’s possession down a touchdown.

By the time Irish fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes dismounted the Tigers behemoth quarterback to force a 3rd-and-24, the writing was on the wall.

“Just watching the defense do what they did, sitting on the sideline knowing that they were going to stop them,” Book said after throwing for 310 yards and a touchdown on 22-of-39 passing while adding 75 rushing yards on 12 carries. “It was unbelievable. Started screaming, ran out there, threw my helmet. It’s just a night I’m never going to forget.”

Indeed, as sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford broke up the third-down pass and Notre Dame responsibly defended Clemson’s pitchy-pitchy-woo-woo attempt on fourth, the only remaining question was if the 11,011 in the stands would storm the field during a global pandemic.

Yes, the masses joined together and celebrated when the incumbent was knocked off. Undoubtedly a dubious decision, it was also a natural release after years of wondering if this moment would come again.

STAT OF THE NIGHT
Etienne is arguably the most dynamic offensive player in the country. He would have been no lower than a second-round draft pick last spring, and he makes that draft grade look more and more foolish each week. Yet, the Irish held the senior running back to 95 yards on 26 offensive touches, a 3.65 yards per moment average. That was not by chance; he was Notre Dame’s first, second and third defensive focus.

“We just tried to contain him,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. “He was everywhere on the field. We tried to fill gaps. We tried to at least blitz the gaps when we had to face him. … It was just a matter of we had to go full-speed every single time and be able to meet him in the backfield, not let him get going.”

The Tigers may have scored 40 total points, including 20 in the second half — notable since before Saturday, the Irish defense had held opponents to single digits in 11 of 12 halves this season — but keeping Etienne in check qualified it all as a success. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea did so without mortgaging the rest of the defensive approach, and thus allowed the Irish to bide their time for 59 minutes. Lea also did so without burning out his defense, allowing it to have enough energy for the sack-to-sack burst to end the game.

“He always implements this system of head-body, head-body mindset, which is just a mindset that you’re always down, even if we’re up,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Just have a mindset of make a good play, but after that, it’s reset, focus again for the next play.”

That focus held Etienne to a subpar night, and led to Uiagalelei’s final possession totaling two sacks for a loss of 14 yards, an incompletion and a fourth-and-the-game checkdown.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Owusu-Koramoah is increasingly known for his big hits. He was sizing Etienne up for one in the second quarter, while the game was airing on only the USA Network, when instead, Etienne essentially gave Owusu-Koramoah the ball on a pitch play.

“It was a play where I had seen it many times on film,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Shaun Crawford was also alerting me, we were talking to each other. We knew the play was coming, just wanted to go ahead and go, but the ball popped out.”

It landed in Owusu-Koramoah’s breadbasket. By the time he had taken two strides, he was past Etienne. The end zone awaited, Notre Dame’s only touchdown between the first and last minutes of regulation.

TREND OF THE NIGHT
If once is an incidence, twice a coincidence and three times a pattern, then what is five in a row? No, Notre Dame has not won its last five home games against No. 1 teams, but they have all been games no one who watched will forget, even that hypothetical football-ignorant viewer. They have been settled by a combined 21 points and featured three overtimes.

1988: No. 4 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Miami 30
1993: No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24
2000: No. 1 Nebraska 27, No. 23 Notre Dame 24 (overtime)
2005: No. 1 USC 34, No. 9 Notre Dame 31
2020: No. 4 Notre Dame 47, No. 1 Clemson 40 (double overtime)

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Be careful out there. … You can use any of the open aisles, please. … If you stay too long, it’ll be last call somewhere.” — The Notre Dame Stadium public address announcer pleading with the students to disperse from the field in the 10 minutes after the game.

UNDERRATED MOMENT OF THE GAME
Senior kicker Jonathan Doerer kept the Irish in the contest for much of the offensive lull, knocking in four field goals, but he also missed a potential school-record 57-yarder just before halftime. Etienne caught the short attempt, and began a harrowing attempt at a Clemson kick-six.

Just before he broke into the open field, Notre Dame punter/holder Jay Bramblett, all 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds of him, tackled Etienne, carrying 205 pounds of muscle on a 5-foot-10 frame.

If Bramblett does not make that tackle, Etienne scores, the Tigers pull within 23-20 at halftime, have all the momentum and receive the second-half opening kickoff. That sequence of events would have been too much for a 59-minute offensive lull to survive.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Williams scored three times. Owusu-Koramoah scored, forced two fumbles and had a game-high nine tackles with half a sack and two tackles for loss. But neither responded from a blown scoring chance — fumbling at the 2-yard line — with a last-minute touchdown drive against a top-flight defense.

“That’s Ian. That’s what he does,” Williams said. “Big game, big stage, he’s there. He’s going to make those plays. We trust him all night. He never let us down on offense. He was the one who kept us going, kept us alive. We trusted him a whole lot tonight. That’s our quarterback for a reason.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
14:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 65-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Clemson 0. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:33)
5:55 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 24 yards. Notre Dame 10, Clemson 0. (10 plays, 49 yards, 6:24)
4:11 — Clemson touchdown. Cornell Powell 53-yard pass from D.J. Uiagalelei. B.T. Potter PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Clemson 7. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:44)

Second Quarter
13:09 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 27 yards. Notre Dame 13, Clemson 7. (13 plays, 66 yards, 6:02)
8:32 — Clemson field goal. Potter 25 yards. Notre Dame 13, Clemson 10. (11 plays, 80 yards, 4:32)
5:53 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah 23-yard fumble return. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 20, Clemson 10.
2:41 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 45 yards. Notre Dame 23, Clemson 10. (4 plays, -2 yards, 2:25)
1:09 — Clemson field goal. Potter 45 yards. Notre Dame 23, Clemson 13. (6 plays, 47 yards, 1:32)

Third Quarter
12:15 — Clemson field goal. Potter 46 yards. Notre Dame 23, Clemson 16. (9 plays, 36 yards, 2:45)
4:12 — Clemson touchdown. Davis Allen 10-yard pass from Uiagalelei. Potter PAT good. Notre Dame 23, Clemson 23. (13 plays, 60 yards, 6:29)

Fourth Quarter
11:37 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 44 yards. Notre Dame 26, Clemson 23. (7 plays, 31 yards, 3:12)
9:42 — Clemson field goal. Potter 30 yards. Notre Dame 26, Clemson 26. (5 plays, 58 yards, 1:49)
3:33 — Clemson touchdown. Travis Etienne 3-yard rush. Potter PAT good. Clemson 33, Notre Dame 26. (12 plays, 74 yards, 5:41)
0:22 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 4-yard pass from Ian Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 33, Clemson 33. (8 plays, 91 yards, 1:26)

Overtime
Clemson touchdown. Uiagalelei 1-yard rush. Potter PAT good. Clemson 40, Notre Dame 33. (2 plays, 25 yards)
Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 3-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Clemson 40, Notre Dame 40. (4 plays, 25 yards)

Second Overtime
Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 3-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 47, Clemson 40. (7 plays, 25 yards)

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

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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

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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.