SOUTH BEND - This is way beyond water-cooler stuff or something you "like" or "poke" on Facebook.
The decision to move forward with senior Dayne Crist or sophomore Tommy Rees at quarterback Saturday night at Michigan is a delicate and difficult read for second-year Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly. He’s trying to steer the team’s long-term trajectory away from the puddles of disappointment it’s been soaking in since late Saturday night.
It’s not like shuffling personnel on your fantasy team. It can’t be a flavor-of-the-week situation. It can’t be a matter of playing a hot hand until it cools off, then switch - and switch again. Those are recipes for a lost season.
The Irish, still 16th ranked in the country until the next AP poll hits cyberspace Tuesday, desperately need an offensive identity, need a consistent authoritative voice in the huddle, need someone who can weave the positives in ND’s turnover-filled 23-20 home loss to South Florida into an eventual ending that matches the team’s preseason buzz.
The decision, per Kelly, will likely be made Monday, announced Tuesday - if not sooner - and debated until Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff - if not longer.
Crist, who won the competition spaced over spring practice and the first 2½ weeks of fall camp, went 7-for-15 for 95 yards with one interception Saturday. His most impressive play might have been futilely trying to run down South Florida’s Kayvon Webster on the longest fumble return by an opponent in ND history, 96 yards.
Rees - who came on in the second half, after a two-hour, 10-minute weather delay - completed 24-of-34 for 296 yards with two TDs and two picks. Had Rees been able to replicate those numbers over an entire game, he would have obliterated Joe Theismann’s school record for passing yards in a game (526).
That’s where the difficulty of the decision comes, though. It’s not simply about numbers, especially a small sampling. Otherwise, Irish fans would be celebrating today the team’s No. 15 ranking nationally in total offense coupled with its No. 25 standing in total defense.
Numbers need context. Numbers also have to be balanced against potential. Team chemistry comes into play. That doesn’t necessarily diminish Rees. There’s something to be said for being able to rise to the occasion when the lights come on and are bright, if not blinding.
“We would like more guys to be at ease with the game,” Kelly said. “Tommy goes in there, and the game is not difficult for him. He’s obviously got to get better in a lot of areas, but he doesn't go into the game and appear at any time to be overwhelmed or anxious.”
The large bodies of work for both quarterbacks are heavy factors in the equation. Saturday is a piece to the puzzle, not the puzzle itself. And no, there will be no throw-off on Monday.
“Sometimes you want to evaluate: Was it as bad as you thought or was it better than you thought,” Kelly said of Saturday’s game, “because you get a sense and feel as the game goes, but sometimes when you go back and you take a step back and you look at film, you get a better understanding of maybe it wasn't the quarterback's fault on this play, maybe it was some other factor.
“So film allows you to do that. So we'll do that (Sunday). Then we'll find out and make a decision - here's where we want to go for the rest of the season. And that will be another critical decision.
“So it won't be as much as what they do on the practice field. It'll be a decision based upon what we saw on film and who we think is the best quarterback right now moving forward.”
And the Irish do have something to build upon around the quarterback decision:
Junior running back Cierre Wood looked every bit as real as the hype that ushered him into this season.
Wood ran for a career-high 104 yards on 21 carries and a TD against what should hold up as one of the better run defenses in the country over the length of the season.
Wood became the first Irish back to hit triple digits since Armando Allen late in the 2009 season. Wood also caught three passes for 44 yards and had a TD run negated by a holding call on wide receiver Michael Floyd.
Eighty-nine yards and 15 of his carries came in the first half. Kelly had to limit the opportunities in the second half, in part because of the score, but more to the point, Kelly’s play-calling was affected by the coach not knowing if the game was going to be called before four full quarters were in the books.