NEW YORK -- It was about the most innocuous play imaginable, but the end result said so much.
Flushed out of the pocket and facing a conservative defense on first-and-10, Tommy Rees pulled the ball down and ran toward the sideline, picking up five yards. Moments later, the press box PA delivered this note: "That was Tommy Rees' longest rush since 2011."
Nobody has ever mistaken the Notre Dame quarterback for a scrambler, of course. After four years of play, Rees' skill set has been well known for a long time, so it shouldn't be a surprise to see that he's never finished with positive rushing yards in a season. But in the final game of the Rees era on Saturday -- a 29-16 win against Rutgers, in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, in which Notre Dame took control in the fourth quarter -- it illuminated the limitations placed on the Fighting Irish now, as compared to what we're likely to see again when Everett Golson retakes the starting job in 2014, following a one-semester suspension.
Coach Brian Kelly succeeded with spread offenses at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, and his goal has been to push the tempo and spread the field at Notre Dame, too. We saw some of that last year, when the then-freshman Golson led Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season and the national title game, and we saw it again on Saturday, when Kelly opted to let Rees push the offense to 90 plays -- 15 more plays than in any other game this season, as well as the greatest number in any non-overtime game in Kelly's four seasons.
But for Rees, just a five-yard run was a chore. The offense undeniably was limited for the better part of Kelly's four years. The Scarlet Knights entered the game with the goal of taking away big plays and allowing shorter passes -- a philosophy that didn't exactly work in the end, aside from a few red-zone stops, but which would be even harder to manage with the threat of the quarterback running at all.
"I'd like to get 90 plays. We got 90 plays in today," Kelly said. "We'd like to play a little faster, like we did today. We'd like our offense to be a little more multi‑dimensional. We had five yards rushing from the quarterback and ran 90 plays. If we have a quarterback next year that has the ability to run the ball, we'll be difficult to defend. Yeah, we'd like to be that kind of team."
By no means is Kelly knocking Rees. Kelly called himself a "Tommy Rees fan for life" and said he'd love to have him as a graduate assistant. But there's still that lingering feeling of what could be something more, that last year is supposed to be the new normal, and 2013 is just a disappointing blip. Golson was supposed to emerge as a star this season after the promising freshman campaign, but his suspension, while hardly the sole reason for Notre Dame's slip this season, did seem to reset the Irish back to 2011.
With Rees at the helm for his second full year as a starter, Notre Dame finished 9-4 in an up-and-down season that featured impressive wins over Michigan State, Arizona State, USC and BYU -- but also losses to Michigan, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Stanford, with a near-loss to Navy. The defense sorely missed linebacker Manti Te'o, and the talented defensive line couldn't stay healthy -- although having Louis Nix live tweet the game was almost as good as watching him play. No consistent producer emerged from a committee approach at running back, where George Atkinson III was also suspended on Saturday.
Throw in a history of decent but uneven play from Rees, who has always had physical limitations and inconsistent accuracy and decision-making, and the Fighting Irish went from the team that got all the breaks in a 12-0 regular season last year to one with unpredictable results on a weekly basis. In reality, 2012 Notre Dame wasn't all that different from 2013 Notre Dame; the defense was clearly better last year, but that team could easily have finished 9-4 too. As the national title game showed, however, this is not a program that can match a team like Alabama in terms of depth of talent, at this point. The Fighting Irish still have a small margin of error, and that can take them from national contender to the Pinstripe Bowl vs. Rutgers in a heartbeat.
"A good year that could have been a great year," Kelly said. "… But I would say a couple of missed opportunities in some games, where we could have easily been a team that's looking at double-digit wins, and that's where we want to be every year. So a good year, but we want more. It's not enough for us; 9‑4 is a good year for Notre Dame, but it's not what we sign up for every year. We wanted a little bit more out of this year."
Expectations are always fickle at a place like Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are one of the most historically great programs in the sport, but they've hardly been a national contender since present-day recruits were born. They can recruit nationally, but they recruit under greater restrictions than most other football powerhouses. It's easy to be good at Notre Dame, but in the modern era, it's hard to be consistently great.
"The whole senior class, I think we left our mark on this program, bringing it back to where it needs to be, and the way we came to work every day, I think that sets a great example for the younger guys," Rees said. "I think the program's going to continue to rise and move in the right direction."
One thing that is clear is that the program is much better off for having Kelly, after the plummet during the last three years of Charlie Weis, not to mention the Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie eras. Rivals.com ranked Notre Dame's recruiting class third last February, and the class of 2014 is currently seventh. The Irish have recruited well before, sure, but unlike Weis, Kelly is a proven developer of talent.
And so, for the second time, the Everett Golson era is set to begin. He's been readmitted to school, which means he'll be back on the team for the spring after working with quarterback guru George Whitfield. A team that reached a peak with its defense will now shift its focus to the untapped potential of what Kelly's offense is supposed to be, only with a new offensive coordinator after Chuck Martin took the Miami (Ohio) job (plus a new defensive coordinator after Bob Diaco went to UConn).
Like on Saturday, Rees was often good enough to win, throwing for 319 yards against Rutgers, but there have always been limits. It's now Golson's job to raise that ceiling and finally reveal whether Notre Dame under Brian Kelly can be what it's supposed to be.