The sophomore needed less than five minutes to knock the Panthers out.
Rees shrugged off a miserable start to hit tight end Tyler Eifert on a 6-yard touchdown pass with less than 7 minutes to go and lift Notre Dame to a 15-12 win on Saturday. The score and subsequent two-point conversion – also to Eifert – capped 4:40 of perfection from Rees as the Irish (2-2) won their second straight.
Rees went 8-for-8 on the game-winning drive, remaining patient even as the Panthers (2-2) bottled up Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd.
Did Rees want to go deep to his favorite target? Sure. Yet he reined in his inner swashbuckler and ignored the beating he took over the first three quarters to play with the kind of poise that has earned him the starting job and his teammates’ respect.
”You’ve just got to make the right decisions,” Rees said. ”We did some good things getting the ball underneath and just kind of chipping away at their defense.”
Rees finished 24 of 41 for 216 yards with a touchdown and an interception and running back Jonas Gray scored on a 79-yard touchdown run for Notre Dame, which overcame eight penalties and two costly turnovers.
It wasn’t pretty. Then again, it beats the alternative for a team that already has a couple of aesthetically pleasing losses – from a statistical standpoint anyway – under their belt.
”Yeah there’s some frustration when you’re not putting points on the board,” Eifert said. ”But at the same time you’ve got to keep grinding … our defense stepped up big and our offense scored just enough points.”
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for 165 yards and a score but was sacked twice on his final drive to snuff out a late rally as the program’s eventful week ended with a thud.
The Panthers were hoping to give coach Todd Graham his first signature win at the school and prove that Pittsburgh’s announcement it was bolting the Big East for the ACC in three years wasn’t a distraction.
Instead, the Panthers ended up letting a second-half lead slip away for the second week in a row. Last weekend a 21-point advantage at Iowa turned into a 31-27 loss.
This time the collapse wasn’t as dramatic, but just as painful.
”We’re so close, we can touch it,” Sunseri said. ”But that’s the thing that’s so frustrating right now. We feel like we are inches away from really busting this open and really being in that up-tempo offense and understanding it and really being able to put points on the board.”
Just not yet.
Still, the Panthers had a chance thanks to a defense that bullied the Irish for long stretches. Notre Dame, which began the day tied for last in the country with 13 turnovers, only gave it away twice against the Panthers, but both were costly.
Rees took a shot in the first quarter and ended up fumbling to set up a Pitt field goal. He later threw an interception at the Pitt goal line in the second quarter to cut short a lengthy Notre Dame drive.
When it mattered, however, Rees delivered, showcasing why he took the starting job away from senior Dayne Crist three weeks ago. The youthful mistakes he’s mixed in between flashes of solid play disappeared in the fourth quarter.
”He’s growing up and seeing some things,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. ”There were some new looks for him that he had not seen before that we had to adjust. And after Tommy sees it, he gets much more comfortable.”
Rees certainly looked like it in the fourth and with Floyd double-covered had no problem zeroing in on Eifert.
The junior caught four passes on the clinching drive, including an 18-yard gain that gave Notre Dame a first down at the Pitt 9. He landed hard on the play but brushed off the trainers and immediately caught a 3-yard pass then followed it up by holding onto a laser from Rees, who split a pair of Pitt defenders and found Eifert just past the goal line.
”They jumped Mike and it left me wide open,” Eifert said.
Pitt had one last chance and drove to Notre Dame 40 before going backward.
Aaron Lynch sacked Sunseri on first down and Prince Shembo racked up Notre Dame’s fifth and final sack on third down, setting the Panthers up with a fourth-and-26.
Sunseri’s pass to Mike Shanahan was incomplete and Rees came on to lead the Irish to one more first down and run out the clock.
”I just need to get rid of the ball,” Sunseri said. ”I need to make sure I’m seeing everything and need to make sure that I’m putting the ball on people, and if they’re not open I have to throw it away.”
Ray Graham ran for 82 yards and added 43 yards receiving for Pitt, but the Panthers could do little else. Sunseri, who has struggled getting the ball downfield, didn’t complete a pass longer than 18 yards.
Rees wasn’t much better against the nation’s 119th-ranked pass defense. Pitt sacked him twice and gave him little time to throw.
Floyd caught three passes on Notre Dame’s first drive but managed just one more the rest of the way. Yet the Irish are proving they’re more than just their all-everything receiver.
Cierre Wood ran 23 times for 96 yards for Notre Dame but it was Gray who provided the big play. The senior sprinted 79 yards down the sideline in the second quarter for his first career score, the school’s longest rush since Terrance Howard darted 80 yards against West Virginia in 2000.
”I was just trying to run as fast as I can, keep my knees high and make sure they don’t get any shoestring tackles,” Gray said.
It was the lone explosive play in a game where yards and momentum were in short supply.
Penalties were not, however, as both teams were flagged a combined 17 times, none bigger than a roughing the kicker call against the Irish at the start of the second half.
It turned a Pitt fourth-and-20 into a first down and extended what turned into a 19-play drive that ended more than 8 minutes later with Sunseri finding tight end Hubie Graham for a 3-yard touchdown to put Pitt up 12-7.
The way Pitt’s defense kept flying around, it looked like it might be enough. Rees made sure it wasn’t, delivering a fourth-quarter comeback that marks another step in the maturation process.
”I knew that his head was in the right place,” Gray said of Rees. ”I’m sure there was a little bit of frustration but I knew he was going to make big plays down the stretch.”