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Tommy Rees bounces out of doghouse to lead Notre Dame’s winning drive

Kyle Brindzboots field goal from 27 yards out with seven seconds left give Notre Dame victory over Purdue. | Michael

Kyle Brindza boots a field goal from 27 yards out with seven seconds left to give Notre Dame the victory over Purdue. | Michael Conroy~AP

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:40AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A month ago, Tommy Rees’ Notre Dame career appeared to be all but over. He was suspended for the season opener for his arrest back in May, forgotten in the quarterback rotation throughout training camp, relegated to the role of a glorified graduate assistant, and cast aside as a hazy reminder of a middling season gone by — a relic of the recent past, his snaps and his status usurped by younger players with more mobility, more athleticism, more excitement, more potential.

So when Irish coach Brian Kelly benched Everett Golson and sent Rees into a tied game against Purdue with 2:05 left in the fourth quarter on Saturday evening, the reaction among the 80,795 fans at Notre Dame Stadium was predictable, if not polite — gasps, screams, and yes, a fair share of boos. And the boos only got worse when Rees’ first two passes fell incomplete.

“I was a bit surprised,” said ND linebacker Manti Te’o. “But I think Tommy knew that it didn’t really matter, because he knew what was most important was that the guys out there on the field and the guys on the sideline trusted him.”

Two minutes later, so did everybody else in the stadium.

Rees completed two third-and-long passes to John Goodman and Robby Toma to march the Irish 55 yards and set up Kyle Brindza’s game-winning 27-yard field goal with seven seconds left in a 20-17 Notre Dame victory.

Golson — who performed quite well, going 21-of-31 for 289 yards, one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown against a ferocious Purdue front four, which sacked him five times — will start at Michigan State next Saturday. Kelly insisted there is no ­controversy.

But after Golson was sacked by Purdue’s Josh Johnson and fumbled at his 15-yard line to set up Caleb TerBush’s game-tying touchdown pass to Antavian Edison with 2:12 to go — hampering his grip, according to Kelly, but not enough to keep him out of the game — Kelly chose experience over potential for the two-minute drill.

He turned to his closer, and Rees — a 16-time starter for Notre Dame coming in cold, and with less than a week of practice reps — finished the job.

“That’s what I knew about him and his makeup, his moxie, his mental toughness,” said Kelly, who refused to let either Golson or Rees speak to the media following the game. “Does he have all of the elite skills? No. But he’s a gamer. He’ll do anything. Those guys in that locker room will go to the wall for him. They’ll do anything, because he’s a great teammate.”

If Rees was the closer, then it was a quality start for Golson. After spending much of the opening rout of Navy handing the ball off, Golson bore nearly the entire weight of the offense. Purdue — with standouts Kawann Short and Ryan Russell anchoring a tremendous line — stacked the box with seven- and eight-man fronts and dared Golson to beat them. He did just that, spreading the ball around to nine receivers, hitting Tyler Eifert (98 yards before suffering a “slight” concussion), DaVaris Daniels, Theo Riddick and Toma four times each.

Notre Dame mustered a mere 52 rushing yards on 36 carries, as Golson did the heavy lifting.

“We knew they were going to load the box, and we knew if they were going to do that, then we were going to put the ball in No. 5’s hands,” tackle Zack Martin said.

Until crunch time, that is. That’s when No. 11 emerged from pigskin purgatory and took over. Maybe Kelly calls on him again down the road, maybe it’s the last Rees ever sees of the field. At the very least, he went out on a high — turning boos into cheers, turning irrelevance into glory.

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