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Developing Golson could be difference-maker for Notre Dame

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- It seemed like a simple question, but it wasn't to Brian Kelly. "Would you be here if Everett Golson didn't develop the way he did this season?" a reporter asked the Notre Dame coach at Saturday's BCS National Championship Game media day.

Kelly took a long pause before ultimately concurring. "We don't get here," Kelly said. "... I hadn't thought that much about it, but we don't get here unless Everett Golson develops the way he did."

Given his team's strong running game and dominant defense, perhaps Kelly paused because he thinks his team could have reached Miami without a quarterback. Perhaps he didn't want to slight former starter Tommy Rees, who was at least partly responsible for four of the Irish's 12 victories. Or perhaps Kelly shares something in common with the many college football fans who remain undecided on whether Golson fits the championship quarterback mold.

The Fighting Irish's redshirt freshman quarterback has unwittingly become one of the more polarizing subplots to Monday night's Alabama-Notre Dame showdown. Those who don't feel the Irish stand much of a chance against the Crimson Tide still associate the young quarterback with his turbulent beginnings, when turnovers and a stagnant offense prompted Kelly to pull Golson for Rees against Purdue (Sept. 8) and Michigan (Sept. 22). Golson was suspended for the start of the Oct. 6 game against Miami after arriving late to a team meeting and missed the Oct. 20 BYU game with a concussion.

On the other hand, those who favor Notre Dame presumably paid close attention over the last five games of the season, when South Carolina native Golson entrenched himself as the offense's undisputed leader. He notched at least 239 yards of offense in every game, tossed seven touchdowns against two interceptions and in four of those games rushed for a combined 224 yards.

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The stretch began with Notre Dame's biggest game to that point, a 30-13 win at Oklahoma on Oct. 27, when Golson not only ran for a then season-high 64 yards but also completed a key 50-yard pass to set up his own go-ahead touchdown run with 5:05 remaining in a then-deadlocked game.

"He's gotten better each week," Irish tackle Zack Martin said of Golson, "but we've talked about a lot of this: The [Oct. 27] Oklahoma game was really when he came out and he was just out there having fun, running fast, getting things together with the offense. It was kind of his breakout game."

When it comes to facing Alabama, though, Golson's particular skill set provides as much intrigue as his development. The Crimson Tide's top-ranked defense is known for teeing off on traditional drop-back passers, but Golson's mobility and improvisational knack could well be the spark his team needs if Alabama successfully locks down Notre Dame's other playmakers.

"You saw that a little bit with Johnny Manziel against [Alabama]," said Irish receiver Robby Toma. "They have a great front seven, great defense in general. To have a guy who can run around and buy some more time -- it's hard to guard receivers for five or 10 seconds. Everett being able to run around is really going to help our offense."

While the Manziel comparisons are inevitable considering the Heisman winner dealt Alabama its lone setback, Notre Dame's offense is not remotely like Texas A&M's offense. While the units employ similar spread formations, the Irish are more conservative and, at least to this point, Golson has not been given the freedom to freelance the way Johnny Football did with such flare against Oklahoma in Friday night's Cotton Bowl.

"We don't go into this game saying we're going to Johnny Manziel you to death," Kelly said with a grin Saturday. "We have to win this football game finding ways to get down the field. I'm smart enough to know that we've got to find ways to increase our odds. Running around and hoping that something good happens -- we might as well have just come down last month and put the game plan together today."

More realistically, Notre Dame will stick to its usual regimen of power running and play-action passing, while looking to mix in the occasional big play. "We have to find ways within our offensive structure to get big chunk plays," said Kelly, who specified chunk plays to be 15-yard runs and 25-yard passes. Alabama allowed fewer such plays than any team in the country this season. Either the Irish are crafting a way for their running backs (Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III) to break into the Alabama secondary, or Golson is going to need to complete passes downfield. Buying time with his feet may help Golson do so.

In the event that Golson struggles and/or reverts to his early-season turnover woes, there's always the possibility that Kelly could once again turn to Rees. The junior, who started Notre Dame's past two bowl games (a 2010 Sun Bowl win over Miami and a 2011 Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State), spent most of media day seated in a corner of the stands with Notre Dame's other backups, fielding the occasional visit from a reporter. Passersby would never know the oft-maligned quarterback led a game-winning drive against Purdue in Week 2, completed 8-of-11 passes for 115 yards in a 13-6 win over Michigan or threw the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Stanford following Golson's late-game concussion.

But Notre Dame's changing of the guard at quarterback was hammered home during its triple-overtime escape against Pittsburgh on Nov. 3. Kelly sent Rees in for Golson after the offense struggled early only to watch the veteran throw a costly interception that helped the Panthers pull ahead 20-6. Golson returned to throw a pair of touchdowns (sandwiched around a pick in the end zone) to tie the score. Rees has barely played since.

"Tommy is ready to play and ready to win," said Kelly. "If we have to use him, it's probably because Everett got injured and no football coach wants to go in thinking about injuries to a quarterback."

That statement makes it clear that Kelly's confidence in Golson has grown considerably since early this season, when the leash was short. There's a direct correlation between Kelly's newfound conviction and the quarterback's own confidence level.

While his coaches and teammates almost universally point to the Oklahoma game as Golson's coming out party, the quarterback cites the Irish's 41-3 rout of Miami on Oct. 6 -- in which he was 17-of-22 for 186 yards and no interceptions while rushing for 51 yards on six attempts -- as his transformative moment.

"It would probably be the Miami game for me is where I really settled down and tried to get back to what I do best as a quarterback -- just improvising and kind of just being me," Golson said. "So I kind of played a little bit looser, and I think as the season went on, that's what you kind of saw in the Oklahoma game, the Pitt game, was just me being myself a little bit and just playing loose."

Now comes the ultimate challenge on Golson's path to continued development: Can he stay settled down and loose in the pressure-packed BCS championship game while Nick Saban's linebackers spend three hours trying to confuse Golson with all manner of blitzes and disguises? The September Golson would surely wilt. The November Golson might struggle at times, but should ultimately make plays when needed.

As Kelly said, the Irish wouldn't be playing on Jan. 7 without that progression. They'll be hard-pressed to win if Golson experiences a regression. If they do win, however, don't be surprised if it's because their early-season question mark winds up being the difference-maker.

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