Notre Dame hadn't beaten a ranked team in over four years, losing 11-straight such contests. Standing at 4-5 in 2010, the first year under head coach Brian Kelly, the 14th ranked Utah Utes came to South Bend for a game against the Fighting Irish.
Just a week before, Notre Dame had lost their starting quarterback, Dayne Crist, in the first quarter of a game against Tulsa, which ended his season. In jogged a true freshman quarterback who looked like a freshman in high school. Tommy Rees calmly led the Irish passing attack, throwing the ball 54 times and completing 33 of them for 334 yards and 4 touchdown passes, although he also threw 3 picks, including one in the end zone with 36 seconds left to seal a 28-27 loss.
The following week, Rees got the start, and he threw 3 touchdown passes without a turnover to lead the Irish to a huge 28-3 victory.
Behind Rees, the Irish rattled off a four game winning streak to end the season, starting with that win over Utah and ending in a victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl on New Year's Eve. Rees had completed 61% of his passes for 1,106 yards, 12 touchdowns and 8 picks while leading the Irish to a 4-0 record as a starter, including a bowl win.
In 2011, a season that started with BCS hopes, Rees started every game, completing 65.5% of his passes for 2,871 yards, 20 touchdowns and 14 picks while guiding Notre Dame to an 8-4 regular season record that ended up as an 8-5 record after a loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Then came 2012, and with it an arrest of Rees and him being relegated to the backup role behind redshirt freshman Everett Golson, who led the Irish to a perfect 12-0 regular season record and the number one ranking in the country for the first time in well over a decade. But still, Tommy Rees played his role perfectly, and multiple times he relieved Golson and led Notre Dame to victory. He had ice water in his veins. The Irish got blown out by Alabama in the National Championship game, a game in which Rees didn't play, but the future was looking incredibly bright. Tommy Rees was nothing but an afterthought, but that would quickly change. Everett Golson was kicked out of school and off the team due to an academic issue, and that meant that the senior Tommy Rees, still with a bit of a baby-face, would be the starting quarterback for the University of Notre Dame one more time, this time with full-fledged BCS expectations following a National Title game appearance.
So far, Rees has been better than anyone could have expected and he has been more important to the team than anyone could have imagined. Completing 54.6% of his passes, Rees has thrown for 2,504 yards and 24 touchdowns with just 10 picks in 10 games, leading the Irish to a 7-3 record.
In his career at Notre Dame, with just three games remaining, Rees has thrown for 6,917 yards, 58 touchdowns, 34 picks, and rushed for another score while completing 60.7% of his passes. As the starting quarterback, Rees has compiled a 19-8 record and has been clutch in many situations. With just 2 more scoring tosses, Rees will tie Jimmy Clausen for the second most touchdown passes in school history with 60.
And yet for pretty much his whole career he has been the scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong for Notre Dame. Fans love to criticize him and blame him for the struggles of the team. He doesn't have the greatest reputation as a quarterback among Notre Dame fans.
But one thing is for sure: Tommy Rees has been the one constant through much change and trial for Notre Dame, and it's hard to imagine just where the Irish would be without their senior signal caller.
We saw a bit of Notre Dame without Rees, and more than enough of it at that. When a neck injury caused Rees to miss most of the second half against USC earlier this year, we all saw just how important Rees was. His backup, Andrew Hendrix, couldn't get anything done, and the offense managed just 30 yards and one first down in Rees' absence - which was nearly an entire half of football. Rees had led the Irish to a big enough lead that the defense was able to hold it, but we saw more than we needed to see about Rees. He was incredibly important to this team. And he always has been.
Whether it was his freshman year, when he came off the bench due to an injury to Dayne Crist, played well, and led the Irish to a 4-0 finish; or whether it was 2011, when he started every game; or whether it was 2012, when he came off the bench numerous times to lead Notre Dame to a win; or whether it was his senior season, when a suspension to Everett Golson launched him into the starting spot for every game - Tommy Rees has always been there for Brian Kelly.
Kelly was criticized by fans last year for being noncommittal to Golson, as he repeatedly pulled the young quarterback for Rees. Next year, he will have no such choice. When he turns to the bench, there won't be Tommy Rees there, ready to help the team however he could. It hasn't always been great from Rees, but the fact of the matter is that over the course of the last four years he has always been there and he has continually won games for the Irish and Brian Kelly.
"He's my quarterback. That's my brother. We lose together, we win together. Tommy was booed last year at the Purdue game where he was the hero after the game. So people can talk and say whatever. He's my quarterback."
"He does a great job of not letting it get to him. I really haven't been around someone who has gone through as much as he has in four years, football-wise. Just the resiliency that he's shown. To do what he's done and bounce back this season is awesome."
Tommy Rees has fought through a lot at Notre Dame and dealt with continual criticism, part of which comes just from being the quarterback of one of the country's premier football programs. Fans may not be too upset that the Tommy Rees era has just three games left, and one home game left, which will be this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium against BYU.
But while Rees may not have the most impressive numbers or look the best accumulating them, one thing is for sure: he has always been there when Notre Dame and Brian Kelly needed him, and it's scary to think about where they would be without him. And that should be his legacy at Notre Dame - he shouldn't be remembered for all of his failures, shortcomings, or interceptions. He should primarily be remembered as a winner who was always ready to step into the spotlight when the lights shone brightest. And most of the time, he came through.
As his career comes to a close and he goes through the senior day ceremonies on Saturday, he deserves nothing but respect and a loud cheer from the Irish fans in attendance. There is a #ThankTommy movement going on twitter right now to thank the quarterback for his contributions to the football program, and that is what I want to write here: Thank you, Tommy. When he got his first start four years ago, he led Notre Dame to their first win over a ranked opponent since 2006, snapping an 0-11 streak. Since Tommy Rees' first start, the Irish have played 11 ranked opponents (including that Utah game) and have won 7 of them. Rees himself has led the Irish to 5 of them, including 3 as a starting quarterback (in 6 tries against ranked teams as a starter) and then 2 off the bench last year. When he took over the starting duties four years ago, the Irish had a new coach and were coming off the worst stretch of their history and were desperately trying to remain relevant and get back to being an elite program. Now, when Rees is leaving the program, they are headed for their fourth straight bowl appearance and have made a National Title game after being ranked number one in the country. In the last 46 games before Rees took over as starter, Notre Dame was just 20-26. Since Rees' first start, the Irish have compiled a 31-9 record.
Is that all Rees? Not even close. But it would also be unfair to ignore the big part that he played in turning this program around, and for that, I say thank you, Tommy. Thank you.
Josh Wilson covers the NFL's Indianapolis Colts for the SB Nation site Stampede Blue. He is also an avid Notre Dame fan and has previously written a fan post on One Foot Down making a case for Manti Te'o for Heisman in 2012 (which didn't happen, and it's ok to blame Josh for that). You can follow him on twitter @coltsfanwilson.