By DOUG GRIFFITHS
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — An unlikely hero came to the Irish’s rescue today against Purdue in Notre Dame Stadium.
Back-up quarterback Tommy Rees, who missed the season opener a week ago serving a one-game suspension, was inserted for the first time in the game with 2:05 remaining and promptly led the Irish on a 12-play, 55-yard drive that led to the game-winning field goal in the waning seconds.
Rees replaced starter Everett Golson after his fumble on Notre Dame’s previous possession led to Purdue tying the game at 17.
The decision to insert Rees was an interesting one to say the least, especially when you consider Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had exited fall camp saying Golson was going to endure some growing pains and the coach was going to live with some of the young quarterback’s mistakes.
In the post-game press conference Kelly explained that the decision to go with Rees was one made due to experience at running Notre Dame’s two-minute drill as well as the fact that Golson had seemed to have injured his hand and was struggling to grip the ball.
“That’s not going to be an excuse for Everett that he’s pulled out because of an injury,” Kelly said. “We also made the decision with the flow of the game that Tommy could come in there and manage our two-minute and he did a great job.”
To say the least, the sellout crowd of 80,795 was not too thrilled that Kelly turned to Rees late in the game. They voiced their displeasure with a chorus of boos and continued booing with each of Rees’ incomplete passes during the drive.
As expected, Kelly wasn’t concerned at all with how the crowd reacted.
“Our fans can do what they want to do,” Kelly said. “We have great fans.”
Regardless, Irish linebacker Manti Te’o, who had a game-high 10 tackles, knew Rees could get the job done.
“Tommy always has great confidence in himself,” Te’o said. “It was no surprise to us that he could drive down the field and put us in a situation to win the game.”
One has to wonder if Kelly would’ve felt that way if the outcome of this one had been different.
After the game, Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were unavailable to the media.
The 22nd-ranked Irish let a 17-7 fourth-quarter lead slip away and seemed to have lost all the momentum when Rees received a little luck of the Irish.
On third-and-six at the Irish 49, Rees was pressured, threw off his back foot and receiver John Goodman adjusted to the ball in the air and made a good catch right in front of the Irish bench. The play resulted in a 10-yard gain and kept the drive alive.
A few plays later, Notre Dame still was out of field goal range, but that changed when Rees hooked up with receiver Robby Toma on third-and-10 for a 21-yard gain to the Boilermaker 20.
Then the Irish positioned the ball in the center of the field and kicker Kyle Brindza drilled a 27-yard field goal with just seven seconds left. Ironically Brindza became Notre Dame’s starter replacing Nick Tausch just a few days earlier due to an injury to Tausch.
Boilermaker Raheem Mostert returned the ensuing kickoff to the Purdue 48. On the game’s final play Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson intercepted Caleb TerBush’s Hail Mary near the goal line and the game was over.
The 20-17 final score marked Notre Dame’s 17th win in the last 18 tries over Purdue in Notre Dame Stadium. During the span, the Irish have beaten the Boilermakers five times by a touchdown or less.
“Obviously anytime you come back and show the resolve that our team did, you can imagine it was a pretty excited locker room,” said Kelly, whose team improved to 2-0 on the young season.
Purdue coach Danny Hope, who remains winless against the Irish in four tries leading the Boilermakers, was pleased with his team’s effort and believes his team showed why it could be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.
“We were only a few plays away from knocking off a really good football team at their home place,” said Hope, whose team is 1-1 on the season. “Certainly, we’re disappointed with the loss. We have nothing to be discouraged about. Really encouraged about our effort, encouraged about the way we came to play.
“I thought our team rose to the occasion and fought really hard. I thought we showed great promise as a football team and I think we’re going to do very well this season.”
Notre Dame looked to be in control of the contest as it scored the first two times it touched the ball in the second half.
After forcing Purdue to a three-and-out, the Irish drove 65 yards on 10 plays and broke the 7-7 halftime tie when Golson hit receiver TJ Jones in the end zone for a three-yard score. The PAT gave the hosts a 14-7 lead with 10:46 left in the third quarter.
Interestingly enough, Hope elected to go with TerBush, who started the game, to begin the third quarter even though backup signal caller Robert Marve finished the opening half with a 13-play 58-yard drive that led to a game-tying touchdown. Marve’s 2-yard pass to Antavian Edison knotted the contest at 7 with just nine seconds to play until the break.
TerBush remained in the game for Purdue’s second series of the second half and threw a horrible pass under pressure that was easily intercepted by Jackson. He returned the pick 11 yards, giving the Irish excellent field position at the Boilermaker 20.
Purdue’s defense held Notre Dame to a field goal — a 30-yarder by Brindza — but still the lead grew to what seemed to be a pretty comfortable 17-7 just about six minutes into the third quarter.
Even after his errant throw, Hope stuck with TerBush on Purdue’s next series, which resulted in a quick three-and-out.
After the game, Hope continued to stay the course about his musical chairs philosophy at quarterback.
“We’re always going to play more than one quarterback,” he said. “We don’t want the No. 1 quarterback to go down and have to wave a white flag right in the middle of the game or right in the middle of the season.
“We’re going to play the guys that help us win. If it’s one, that’s fine. If it’s two, that’s fine. If it’s three, that’s fine. We’ll do whatever it takes for us to win.”
The decision to go back to TerBush wasn’t the only perplexing decision of the day by Hope.
On what proved to be Notre Dame’s game-winning drive, Purdue’s star cornerback Ricardo Allen was benched and not due to injury.
“Coaching decision,” is all Hope said when asked in the post-game press conference about the subject.
The next time the visitors touched the ball, Marve was under center and TerBush’s day appeared to be over.
Marve responded by getting Purdue’s offense in field goal range. It became a one possession game when Boilermaker kicker Sam McCartney connected from 33 yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Both team’s offenses spent a good majority of the rest of the final quarter doing little to nothing.
Then the thrilling finish began to take shape.
Marve was sacked by a host of Irish defenders and appeared to possibly re-injure his surgically repaired knee. He was attended to by Purdue’s medical staff for a while on the field, but walked off under his own power.
TerBush tried to do his best at writing a storybook ending of his own as a few plays later he connected on a 15-yard scoring strike to Edison on fourth-and-10. Purdue called a time-out to make sure it was set in its protection scheme for the extra point and once it converted the PAT, the game was tied with 2:12 to go.
Although the Boilermaker offense rallied, it was there defense that was pretty much the story throughout the game.
Notre Dame found Purdue’s defensive front every bit as good as advertised. After rushing for 293 yards last week against Navy, the Irish managed just 52 yards on the ground in this one. In fact, the Irish had just 18 yards rushing on 16 carries in the opening 30 minutes against the Boilermakers.
Kelly attributed part of the running difficulty to Purdue’s loading the box with defenders and daring the Irish to pass.
Notre Dame did go to the air early and often — out of necessity as Kelly put it — ending the day with 39 pass attempts, two more than Purdue’s spread offense. Golson ended 21-of-31 passing for 289 yards and a touchdown.
Because of the consistent pressure Golson faced, Notre Dame was forced to continually roll him out. Despite that strategy, Golson was sacked five times.
“They gave us some challenges all day with different looks,” said Irish offensive tackle Zack Martin about facing the Boilermaker front. “They gave us a tough game. Hats off to them.”
Golson got the scoring underway in the second quarter, scoring on a three-yard run to give the Irish a 7-0 lead with 3:45 left in the half.
Notre Dame’s defense did a good job on an offense that presents plenty of problems. The Boilermakers settled for 288 yards, including 198 through the air.
Now the Irish turn their focus on No. 11 Michigan State as they’ll face the Spartans at 8 p.m. next Saturday in East Lansing.
If you wondering if a quarterback controversy is brewing at Notre Dame, Kelly quickly squashed those thoughts.
“There is no quarterback controversy,” Kelly said. “Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State.”