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Notre Dame Football: The Top 5 Quarterback Performances of the Brian Kelly Era

We use Bill Connelly’s success rate with some surprising results.

Notre Dame v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Here are the five best single-game quarterback performances in the Brian Kelly era.

I used Bill Connelly’s “success rate” as my primary factor in determining which Notre Dame Fighting Irish signal callers had the best games during which they attempted at least 10 passes.

“The goal of success rate is to create an on-base percentage-style efficiency measure,” Connelly wrote last year. “Depending on a given down and distance, each play is deemed successful or non-successful:

  • First downs: gaining at least 50 percent of necessary yardage (usually 5 yards) is successful.
  • Second downs: gaining at least 70 percent of necessary yardage is successful.
  • Third or fourth downs: gaining at least 100 percent of necessary yardage is successful.”

For quarterback performances, Connelly told me to consider only downs where a pass was attempted or a sack was recorded. (He’d also suggest adjusting for opponent, which I haven’t done.)


Quarterback: Everett Golson
Opponent: Navy Midshipmen
Year: 2014
Stat line: 61.5 percent success rate; 18-for-25, 315 yards, 3 touchdowns, 5-of-6 on converting third downs via pass. Three rushing touchdowns.

If you don’t remember this game, it’s probably because you were still reeling from the loss to the Florida State Seminoles one week prior. The Navy game was the last regular season win, as it would be the third of seven consecutive games in which Brian VanGorder’s defense would surrender at least 31 points. Linebacker Joe Schmidt, who best understood VanGorder’s defensive scheme, was lost in this game to a fractured left ankle and the Irish blew a 21-point lead.

That likely overshadowed Golson’s outstanding individual effort, as he completed 72 percent of his passes, generated 10 first downs via pass and threw two of his three touchdown passes on third and goal. Although it’s not calculated in his QB success rate, Golson scored three additional times with his feet.

Navy had the 95th best defense out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, according to Connelly’s S&P+ formula.

Quarterback: Ian Book
Opponent: Northwestern Wildcats
Year: 2018
Stat line: 61.8 percent success rate; 22-of-34 for 343 yards, 2 touchdowns. Three of seven converting third downs via pass. One rushing touchdown.

Northwestern had the 30th best defense last year, as defined by S&P+, and Book had the best game of his career despite suffering a rib and back injury midway through the game.

With the game tied at 7 in the third quarter, Book converted a third-and-five when Miles Boykin split two defenders for a 20-yard score. With Notre Dame leading by just three with less than three minutes remaining, the junior scampered 23 yards on a third-and-four to seal the victory for the Irish.

Quarterback: Tommy Rees
Opponent: Air Force Falcons
Year: 2011
Stat line: 62.5 percent success rate; 23-of-32, 261 yards, 4 touchdowns. Six for seven on third downs converted by pass.

Rees was an Air Force killer.

The Falcons, whose defense was ranked 91st in S&P+ that year, really didn’t do anything well in this game. The Irish were successful on 56 percent of their first down pass plays, 66 percent of their second down pass plays and 86 percent of their third down pass plays. Two of Rees’ touchdowns were on third down, one to Michael Floyd and the other to Tyler Eifert.

Quarterback: Tommy Rees
Opponent: Navy
Year: 2011
Stat line: 63.6 percent success rate; 16-of-22, 237 yards, 1 touchdown. One of four on third downs converted via pass.

Navy had an awful defense in 2011, ranked 110th (out of 120 FBS teams) in S&P+. Rees did most of his damage on first down, with 10 throws that gained at least five yards (out of 12 attempts). His success rate on second down was 60 percent as well.

Quarterback: DeShone Kizer
Opponent: UMass Minutemen
Year: 2015
Stat line: 65.2 percent success rate; 15-of-22 for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Four of five on third downs converted via pass. One rushing touchdown.

If I were picking these just by success rate, this would be the fifth best performance. I’m demoting this because of the caliber of opponent — UMass had the 76th best defense that year.

Kizer’s arm accounted for 13 first downs in this game, with four of those coming on third down. The redshirt freshman rushed nine times for 42 yards and helped Notre Dame take a 14-0 lead with a seven-yard scamper and score at the end of the first quarter.


Quarterback: Tommy Rees
Opponent: Michigan Wolverines
Year: 2011
Stat line: 64.1 percent success rate; 27-of-39 for 315 yards, 3 touchdowns. Six of nine on third down conversions via pass.

This game is probably best remembered as Gary Gray’s worst day at the office or as the one that irreversibly damaged the psyches of Irish fans. Perhaps you’re surprised to see Rees’ performance here, then, especially if you remember that inexplicable fumble on first and goal with the Irish protecting a three point lead in the fourth quarter. Rees also threw two interceptions, you may argue, so this can’t be a top performance.

Here’s the flip side:

  • Rees converted 15 of his 27 completions into first downs, including six on third down.
  • All three of his touchdown passes were on third downs.
  • His success rate on first down was 65 percent, on second down was 62 percent and 67 percent on third down.
  • Michigan had the 21st best defense (out of 120 FBS teams) and, in front of a hostile crowd of 114,804, this was more pressure than any other performance in the top 5.


Quarterback: Everett Golson
Opponent: Boston College Eagles
Year: 2012
Stat line: 66.7 percent success rate; 16-of-24 for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Four of six on third down conversions via pass. One rushing touchdown.

This game made any Notre Dame fan with a long memory nervous. The Eagles were perfect season killers, having done it to the Irish in 1993 and 2002. The Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M Aggies had defeated the previously unbeaten Alabama Crimson Tide earlier in the day.

Was Notre Dame next?


Golson completed just 16 passes, but he made them count. Twelve went for first downs. Two went for touchdowns. The redshirt freshman was the team’s second leading rusher on the day as well, racking up 39 yards and a first quarter touchdown against the nation’s 63rd best defense that year.


Quarterback: Everett Golson
Opponent: Miami-Florida Hurricanes
Year: 2012
Stat line: 68.2 percent success rate; 17-of-22 for 186 yards. Zero touchdowns, zero interceptions. Two for five on third down conversions via pass.

It’s admittedly weird to consider this one of the five best quarterback performances in the Brian Kelly era because of the heavy emphasis on the run. The Irish ran 77 plays, of which just 26 were passes.

With the Irish leading 20-3 in the third quarter, Kelly recognized his team asserting its will on the ground and called 18 consecutive run plays. Cam McDaniel caught final Irish pass of the game with about nine minutes remaining and then the sophomore running back set a school record with nine consecutive runs.

Golson threw for 11 first downs and was successful on 8-of-11 first down throws. In addition, the redshirt freshman met Connelly’s definition of second-down success on five of six attempts.

Miami’s defense was middle-of-the-pack, ranking 68th out of 124 qualified teams.


Quarterback: Tommy Rees
Opponent: Air Force
Year: 2013
Stat line: 69.6 percent success rate; 17-of-22 for 284 yards and five touchdowns. Four of five on third downs attempted via pass.

There’s no sugarcoating it. Air Force’s defense was ridiculously bad in 2013 — seventh worst among all 125 FBS defenses in S&P+. But dang...five touchdown passes to five different receivers: T.J. Jones, Will Fuller, Ben Koyack, Corey Robinson and Chris Brown. Brown’s catch was Rees’ final throw of the afternoon, and it converted a third-and-eight in the red zone.

Rees was 60 percent successful on first down throws, 83 percent on second down and 80 percent on third down. He even converted a fourth-and-five with a nine yard strike to Troy Niklas in the second quarter with the game still up for grabs.


Quarterback: Malik Zaire
Opponent: 2015
Year: Texas Longhorns
Stat line: 69.6 percent success rate; 19-of-22 for 313 yards and three touchdowns. Four of six third downs converted.

Joshua wrote about this game recently. Zaire was electrifying this night, with eight of his nine first down throws going for six yards or more. He had two of his three touchdowns on second downs, and opened the scoring with a third-and-11 conversion to Fuller. Zaire’s arm accounted for 14 first downs that night.

Texas had a middle-of-the-road defense, finishing 60th in S&P+ out of 128 FBS teams.


The ten worst Notre Dame quarterback performances, using the success rate metric (minimum 10 attempts):