How warm and fuzzy should Irish fans feel about Tommy Rees’ performance in the 28-6 win over Temple?
Rees went 16-of-23 for 346 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions on Saturday, numbers good enough to earn him the fourth-best passer rating in the FBS.
But do the stellar stats and the victory really signal the successful transition from the surprise loss of Everett Golson?
Well, the first thing that stands out in Rees’ performance is that the guy who’s been tagged as "Turnover Tommy" didn’t throw any interceptions in 23 attempts.
To put this into perspective, Rees has attempted more than 20 passes in a game 18 times at Notre Dame, and he hasn't had any interceptions on six of those occasions.
Of course, his "perfect" game versus Temple came against a defense that finished 2012 ranked No. 86 (out of 125 teams) in scoring.
But contemplating whether Rees is ready to lead the Irish to double-digit wins and a BCS berth is more complex than hoping he stops throwing interceptions. This is true because Notre Dame isn’t the same program it was when Rees last served as the long-term starter in 2011.
The caliber of athletes signing on at Notre Dame continues to improve as the Brian Kelly era marches on to the five-year mark.
The other great component of Kelly's recruiting is that he continues to fill the Irish’s cupboard with athletes that fit the bill for his particular schemes. In other words, it’s becoming "his team."
What this means in regards to Rees is that the Notre Dame team in 2013 is a far cry from the group in 2011, which was only Kelly’s second year on the job.
The Run vs. the Pass
Though Rees had more proven receiving targets returning in 2011 than he does in 2013, what if the importance of the pass has diminished at Notre Dame?
In 2011, Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert all returned, while in 2013, only TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels return as the top three targets from a year ago.
This makes it seem like Rees has his work cut out for him as a passer. But by peeling back a couple more layers, a different picture emerges. It clearly shows a team relying less on the pass as time goes on.
In 2011, Notre Dame ran the ball 433 times and threw it 473 times. In 2012, the Irish bumped up rushing plays to 506 and notched down passing plays to 388. This means that the Irish ran the ball 73 more times last season and threw it 85 times fewer.
This is significant because if the trend continues, there is less pressure on Rees—or any other quarterback—to be "the" offensive player.
Perhaps Rees made so many mistakes as a starter in 2011 because he felt forced to carry the offense, where in 2013, he’ll be a part of a team that is more run-centric.
Turnover Margin Means More than Interceptions Thrown
Rees threw 14 interceptions in 2011, tying him for the 11th-most in the FBS ranks.
When you take this and add in that Notre Dame ranked No. 118 out of 125 teams in turnover margin, it’s easy to get the feeling that Rees' carelessness with the ball had a lot to do with the 8-5 finish.
But the truth about turnover margin is there are two sides to the equation; losses and gains.
On the one hand, the Notre Dame offense had 17 interceptions and 12 fumbles lost in 2011, while on the flip side, the defense gained only six fumbles and eight interceptions.
So while the offense ranked No. 110 in losses, the defense ranked No. 112 in gains.
Moving ahead to 2012—when Notre Dame mended its turnover issues—the Irish committed seven fumbles and eight interceptions. This reduction by 14 turnovers was only half of the improvement.
The defense ramped up its gains to seven fumble recoveries and 16 interceptions—or, it scored nine additional takeaways.
This means that “Turnover Tommy” wasn’t the only culprit in 2011, nor was his removal the only reason the Irish improved to a No. 29 ranking in turnover margin in 2012.
The other major difference between the 2011 Irish and the squad that blazed a trail to 12-1 in 2012 is defense.
Yes, Golson replaced Rees last season, but the truth is, Golson had a much more prolific defense backing him up. This makes it a lot easier to score enough points to win ball games.
To illustrate, the Notre Dame defense finished the 2011 season ranked No. 24 in points allowed, giving up 20.7 points per game. In 2012, it improved to a No. 2 ranking and allowed only 12.8 points per game.
This eight-point per game difference is a huge deal when the total margin of victory in 2011 was 111 points, or, an average of 8.53 points per game.
Who’s to say if Notre Dame’s defense doesn’t perform similarly in 2013, that Rees won’t be one of the best quarterbacks in the country?
Or so it will seem.
Is He Ready?
The bottom line is football is a team sport, which means that Rees won’t have to take the next step in his career as the Notre Dame quarterback alone.
On one hand, he’ll play for a more talented, more balanced and more defensively potent team in 2013 than he did in 2011.
And on the other, championship teams require at least a steady-handed quarterback that won’t give the game away.
While Rees doesn’t have to win the games on his own, he will need to continue to improve accuracy and throw fewer interceptions.