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Rees takes charge, leads Irish charge into Fiesta Bowl

| Friday, December 31, 2021

During Monday’s press conference, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees fielded questions about his upcoming challenge. That challenge, to put it succinctly, is to score — and score enough — on an elite Oklahoma State defense. Do that, and Notre Dame’s defense should be able to put the wraps on a Fiesta Bowl victory. Fail to do so, and Notre Dame is looking at more questions after a high-profile loss. It’s been 27 years since the Irish won a New Year’s Six bowl game, when Rees was two years old. The young coordinator is well aware of the challenges at stake, and the momentum a big performance builds for next season.

Notre Dame’s offense looked extremely impressive down the stretch. After slogging their way through the first six games, the Irish came to life in the second half of the season. They notched three efforts of 44+ points didn’t score less than 28. They posted their biggest win in 25 years in their home finale, 55-0 over Georgia Tech. Rees looked far more comfortable in the offense, but the success comes with an asterisk of sorts. The Irish played a bevy of awful defenses in that stretch. Was Notre Dame that much better or did more points result from softer resistance?

Well, against Oklahoma State, Rees gets the opportunity to answer that question. The Cowboys rank inside the top-six in both run and pass defense. They did this in a highly explosive Big 12 conference known for potent offenses. No offensive unit notched more than 24 points against the Cowboys. It is the ultimate season-ending test for an Irish squad that showed so much improvement throughout 2021.

When reflecting on the upcoming test, Rees compared Oklahoma State to both Wisconsin and Cincinnati, whom the Irish faced in consecutive weeks.

“They have the stout front that Wisconsin does. They have the veteran presence, the two really good inside linebackers. They’re strong and aggressive at the point of attack,” Rees said of Oklahoma State. “And then they are very multiple, like Cincinnati. You got three down, four down, three-high safety, movement all over the place [in regards to different defensive schemes]. It’s almost a blend of the two, which presents a lot of challenges.”

If that holds true, the Irish are in for an absolute battle. In those two games, Notre Dame notched just four total offensive touchdowns. They can’t be falling so silent on Saturday. So, those second-half improvements can be validated by a strong effort versus the Cowboys. Oklahoma State features the strengths of Wisconsin (run defense) and Cincinnati (pass defense) and poses a stiff challenge to the Irish.

In particular, for the first time, Rees must prepare for a game without running back Kyren Williams. The back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher has been a mainstay in the Irish offense during Rees’ tenure. But Rees will look to his alternate options Saturday. Those options include freshmen Logan Diggs and Audric Estime, as well as sophomore Chris Tyree. Diggs and Tyree did get some burn this year as change-of-pace backs, while Estime only saw action in the aforementioned Georgia Tech blowout. However, both Rees and head coach Marcus Freeman said they plan on utilizing a committee approach to the backfield at the Fiesta Bowl.

“We have a ton of belief in the guys that are here to play,” Rees commented. “We have a ton of belief in Chris, Logan and Audric to go out there and represent that room and our level of play to a high level.”

In the passing attack, Rees gets to work with quarterback Jack Coan one final time. But elsewhere, his weapons may spill over to 2022, making this an interesting preview of how Rees operates. After two years under Brian Kelly, Rees enters his first game of the Marcus Freeman era. This is notable because Freeman is known for his defensive prowess. Meaning, while the head coach is involved in the offense, much of the preparation falls to Rees. Many believed that Kelly had his fingerprints all over both the playbook and play-calling. A very interesting trend to watch will be whether there are some new twists or features in the Irish offense against the Cowboys.

With a first-year head coach and a second-year coordinator, there’s no doubt the Irish have a lot of youth in their staff. Whether that’s an advantage or a disadvantage remains to be seen. But the hype surrounding the Fighting Irish program is at an all-time high and whether the oft-critiqued Rees can deliver under the bright lights is critical.

“Everything has been very smooth. One of the things Coach Freeman does is get everyone on the same page, from the top down. We meet as a staff every day now to make sure we are all communicating,” Rees noted of preparing for a game under a former defensive coordinator. “I feel like we’re very much aligned. As far as the Xs and Os,… he trusts what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish … which as a coordinator working for him, that belief and trust go a long way.”

Tommy Rees could be in Baton Rouge right now. He could be working on a fake southern accent, or soaking up some Louisiana sun and coaching against SEC competition. It’s an option Rees admitted in the post-Brian Kelly fallout was somewhat attractive. But the former Irish quarterback has no interest in looking back. When asked about Kelly, Rees essentially gave the message that it’s time to move on.

“I still think coach Kelly is held in high regard by a lot of people that are part of this program. He hired me here as a young coach, promoted me as a young coach,” Rees said. “I think what coach Kelly did over his time at Notre Dame needs to be respected. He built the culture to a point where we felt like we can seamlessly get into this transition.”

Rees didn’t follow Kelly to a bigger payday and potentially higher-profile job at LSU. Rather, he stayed to join the new era at Notre Dame. That new era has one opportunity to show off what they’ve built this past month. As national championship hopes rise in South Bend, Rees is ready to rise to the challenge. A flat performance diminishes the fantastic program momentum accomplished in the last four weeks.

“It’s a great challenge that we’re excited for — definitely a bit of a measuring stick for how far we have come,” Rees said of the upcoming Fiesta Bowl. “We talk a lot about their defense and them being a great defense, which they are. But I tend to think we have great players on our side of the ball, too. So, I’m excited to see the match-up.”

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About Aidan Thomas

A senior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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