SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After a brutal, slogging win over USC, one thing became clear for Notre Dame: The Irish are not going anywhere without Tommy Rees.
After weeks of fans clamoring for a quarterback change, it finally happened, though not by choice. Rees was knocked out of Notre Dame's 14-10 win over USC with a strained neck, handing the keys to the offense to Andrew Hendrix in the third quarter.
Hendrix's line: 0-for-4 passing with six rushes for five yards. USC succeeded in stopping Notre Dame's ground game by loading the box and daring Notre Dame to pass. When Hendrix did, he didn't look like a guy anywhere close to unseating Rees as Notre Dame's No. 1 quarterback.
"I wasn't willing to throw the football," coach Brian Kelly said, "and when we did, I didn't like the way it looked."
Before his injury, Rees completed a solid 14 of 21 passes for two touchdowns and didn't turn the ball over. That doesn't erase his shortcomings against Michigan State and Oklahoma last month (combined: 23-of-58, 246 yards, 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions). Nor does it erase the pick-six he threw against Arizona State on Oct. 5.
But he surpassed 6,000 yards in his career on Saturday, something only four other Notre Dame quarterbacks can say they've done.
"I'm sure he'll look back on that a little bit later and be able to point out, 'Hey, I did play at Notre Dame and I wasn't that bad,'" Kelly said.
Milestones aside, Rees' solid showing, coupled with Hendrix's miserable night, proved he's the best option Notre Dame has at quarterback.
Freshman Malik Zaire had his helmet on and was lingering around pre-drive sideline huddles but didn't get into the game. Kelly didn't want to address the hypothetical of what he would've done had Hendrix needed to come out, but he hasn't seemed keen on deploying the true freshman who had mono earlier in the season.
It looks like a pretty clear pecking order at quarterback — Rees No. 1, Hendrix No. 2 and Zaire No. 3. Perhaps that changes if Rees is out for a few games and Hendrix doesn't improve off his USC stat line.
"You hate to see (Rees) go down, but at the same time we have all the faith in Tommy that we have in Andrew," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "So it's just, all right, Andrew, it's your time."
If there's a silver lining to Rees' injury, it's that Notre Dame's next game is against a 1-6 Air Force squad that ranks among the worst defensive teams in the nation. If Rees isn't able to go next week in Colorado Springs, the Irish should — in theory — be OK.
Saturday's Rees-less performance was about as bad as it gets, though — far worse than anything Rees did against Michigan State or Oklahoma.
"We've got to play better, flat out," Kelly said.
One way to do that? Get Rees back.
For a guy who's been defined as the problem behind Notre Dame's offense, he's now the solution.