The senior threw for 319 yards and no interceptions in his final college game, leading No. 25 Notre Dame to a 29-16 victory against Rutgers that was far from pretty but ultimately successful — and an offensive lineman won the MVP award.
"I was giving Tommy a hard time," said senior tackle Zack Martin, who took home the award. "I think he got snubbed a little bit."
Rees finished four years of football for the Fighting Irish packed with both memorable and forgettable moments with a solid performance, going 27 for 47. He has been "The Closer," rallying Notre Dame to victories with late drives, and "Turnover Tommy," making crushing mistakes at the most inopportune times during his time in South Bend, Ind.
For his finale, against one of the worst pass defenses in the nation, Rees was mistake free and productive. He missed some throws that could have broken open the game, but, typically, he persevered.
"I'm a Tommy Rees fan for life," coach Brian Kelly said.
Kyle Brindza kicked five field goals for the Fighting Irish (9-4), who completed their follow-up season to last year's run to the national championship game a long way from the BCS — facing a two-touchdown underdog that was trying to avoid a losing record.
Notre Dame's play was less than inspired — Kelly said about a dozen players were fighting a flu bug — but the win prevented the Irish from finishing with eight victories for the third time in his four seasons.
"A good season that could have been a great season," Kelly said.
Notre Dame's TJ Jones scored on an 8-yard run in the first quarter and Rutgers star Brandon Coleman answered with a 14-yard touchdown catch soon after. Tarean Folston's 3-yard touchdown run with 3:38 in the fourth made it 26-16 and finally gave the Irish a comfortable lead.
On the slick turf at Yankee Stadium, the Pinstripe Bowl turned into a field-goal kicking contest. Brindza was 5 for 6. Kyle Federico made 3 of 3 for the Scarlet Knights (6-7).
The Irish dominated in yards (494-237) and time of possession (38:49) but bogged down in the red zone repeatedly.
"I loved the way we were able to stay calm and stay within our offense and continue to kind of monotonously move the ball down the field," Rees said.
Twice Notre Dame put together double-digit play drives that ended in short field goals for Brindza. A 15-play, 90-yard march that started in the third quarter and ended in the fourth with Brindza's 25-yarder made it 19-13 Notre Dame with 12:46 left.
"I love the fourth quarter," Brindza said. "That's pretty much what a kicker's job is supposed to be."
Brindza's third field goal, a 26-yarder with 6:03 left in the third quarter, gave Notre Dame a 16-13 lead — after the Irish caught a break. Brindza had missed from 36 yards but Rutgers was flagged for running into the kicker to give him a second, easier, try.
"We thought we played good red zone defense and we could make them kick a few field goals and attempt some field goals, maybe we could block one and then win the game in the fourth quarter," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "We were kind of poised to do that."
Senior quarterback Chas Dodd, whose career has been similar to Rees' in terms of ups and downs, finished with 156 yards passing for Rutgers.
"What we saw with their defense was just what we knew we would see," Dodd said. "We had a game plan ready to attack it. We just weren't able to because of our execution."
Notre Dame improved to 17-6-3 at Yankee Stadium, though this ballpark in the Bronx is only a few years old and across the street from where the original House that Ruth built sat for decades.
"It's great to be in New York," Kelly told what was left of bowl record crowd of 47,122 during the postgame trophy ceremony on the field after the Irish had sung the alma mater with the band in right-center field, near the Yankees bullpen.
The Fighting Irish played the first football game in the new stadium back in 2010. Rees, a freshman then, helped the Irish beat Army and got to use Derek Jeter's locker. Called upon to lead the Irish this year after Everett Golson was suspended from school for academic cheating, Rees became the third Notre Dame player to surpass 3,000 yards through the air in a season.
Rees will next play in the East-West Shrine Game, trying to impress pro scouts.
"He's going to keep chasing that football dream," Kelly said. "But I told him he's got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly anytime."
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