Time after time against Michigan State last Saturday, Tommy Rees’ deep passes sailed over the heads/hands of his receivers, keeping the game a one-score contest from start to finish.
It was frustrating to watch.
Short of connecting on those throws, it beats the alternative.
In years past, a couple of those passes heaved by Rees would have been underthrown, intercepted, and possibly returned to give the Spartans’ offense good field position.
Not this year, and specifically not against a Michigan State defense that lived off turnovers in its first three victories of the season.
“I guess I grew up a little bit,” smiled Rees of the extra length on his passes and the velocity increase on his throws.
“I worked really hard in the off-season focusing on getting my legs into the throw and building my base. I really focused on getting that lower-body strength because a lot of your power comes from there.”
With the knowledge that he would be returning to the starting lineup after ceding control of the job to Everett Golson in 2012, Rees was determined to conclude his collegiate career on a high note.
After consulting with Irish head coach Brian Kelly and quarterbacks coach Chuck Martin, Rees turned to the man who could make the greatest difference in the improvement of his lower-body drive.
“I sat down with Coach (Paul) Longo at the beginning of the summer and we talked about it,” Rees said. “He prepared me pretty well throughout the off-season, and I think I just kind of matured and grew up a little bit.
“I understood that was a part of my game that needed developing, and that’s what I tried to do. There are different drills, but I focused on the squat and some of the movements and techniques to really get my legs driving the ball.”
There have been numerous instances in the first four games of the ’13 season in which the zip on Rees’ passes is noticeably improved. The crossing routes to DaVaris Daniels against Michigan had some heat on them. The perfectly-placed bomb to DaVaris Daniels for an 82-yard score. The rifled 20-yard out to TJ Jones in front of the Notre Dame sideline against Michigan State.
Even the shorter throws to backs and tight ends underneath have had plenty of velocity - perhaps too much -- as Rees tries to balance good lower-body leg drive with finesse.
“I’ve just got to know when to put a little feather on the ball to hit him underneath,” said Rees, whose rocket to Amir Carlisle at the goal line late in the Michigan game was too hot to handle and led to a game-ending interception.
“It’s all about giving your receivers a catchable ball, and that’s something that whether your arm gets stronger or not, you’ve got to be able to have a touch.”
Statistically, Rees’ 14-of-34 effort for 142 yards and one touchdown against the Spartans was the worst of his career. During the 2011 season when he was a full-time starter, he completed less than 57 percent of his throws in a game just once. During a five-game stretch against Air Force, USC, Navy, Wake Forest and Maryland, he completed 108-of-152 passes (71.0 percent). Rees entered the season a career 63.6 percent passer, including 65.5 in 2011.
Against Michigan State last week, the game plan was not designed for a high percentage of completions. Taking shots downfield and avoiding turnovers was the top priority against the Spartans, who forced six turnovers in the first three weeks, four of which were converted into defensive scores.
“That was a big part of the mindset last week because Michigan State does a great job of turning the ball over, giving their offense a short field, and presenting some opportunities for them to score,” Rees said.
“There were times when my mindset was only my guys can get it or no one at all can get it. For me, protecting the football and living to play another down is important.”
Right before halftime, with the Irish trailing 7-3 at the Michigan State two-yard line, Rees didn’t hesitate to throw a pair of fade routes away before scoring on third down. The game-winning score early in the fourth quarter came after another throwaway on first down.
“There were situations down in the red zone where I knew I was throwing it away and we scored on it with TJ (Jones) on third down and with Cam (McDaniel) on second down,” Rees said. “We knew it just takes one play down there, so make sure you get all the plays that you can.”
The last thing on Rees’ mind against Michigan State was concern over his 14-of-34 passing performance.
“I never think in terms of stats,” Rees said. “I knew we were going to have to take some shots down the field, and those obviously aren’t the highest percentage throws. But you’ve got to put the ball in a good place so your receivers can go get it and win match-ups outside.
“We obviously had a lot of pass interferences that could have been big plays for us. But we’ll take the 15 yards. For us, it was about trying to get the ball down the field and creating some big opportunities.”
While the Irish didn’t specifically game plan for four interference calls and one defensive holding against Michigan State, they did try to maximize their opportunities against the Spartans’ attacking approach.
“We knew they were aggressive man-to-man players,” Rees said. “Anytime your receivers go after the ball, that can reveal some PI (pass interference).
“If you go after it with two hands, most likely you’re going to catch it, or if they’re holding you, then you’re going to expose them. Our receivers did a good job of fighting for the ball and trying to get open.”
Any thoughts on some of those debatable interference penalties?
“I couldn’t see most of them, to be honest,” Rees laughed. “I don’t disagree with all of them, I guess.”