Sunday September 7th, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- No one could stop watching him all night, but in the end Everett Golson only had eyes for everyone else. Notre Dame’s quarterback stood on a sideline bench, smiling with a red hat tugged low over his brow, observing his team’s defense indulge Michigan’s last few death rattles. Then he turned to the crowd behind him. Golson waved his hands up and down, requesting more noise. Seven seconds remained and a historic win was already assured, but there wasn’t a moment to waste if this was to be a perfect send-off.  

When Notre Dame safety Elijah Shumate picked off the ensuing pass, Golson began bouncing on the bench, pointing and screaming as Shumate ran the ball to the end zone in an eardrum-shattering din. Assuming the game was over, Golson hopped off and marched on the field alone, pointing two index fingers into the air … until officials negated the play due to a penalty and made everyone go back to their corners for one more meaningless snap.

“They kind of ruined my fun,” Golson said.

HAMILTON: Notre Dame routs Michigan in teams' last scheduled meeting

He’d had his fill. The final meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan for the foreseeable future may be remembered as a night that launched a thousand Heisman Trophy hyperventilations, with Golson leading a 31-0 bludgeoning of the Wolverines. It was the second straight game in which he had impeccable command, accuracy and production. Sneer at Rice and Michigan if you must. Whatever the context, Notre Dame’s quarterback has completed 37-of-56 attempts for 521 yards in 2014, a total that includes maybe a half-dozen drops from his receivers. After the Fighting Irish’s three scores through the air on Saturday, Golson has accounted for eight total touchdowns in two games.

There may not be a college quarterback playing better than the one who wasn’t anywhere to be found last year while serving an academics-related suspension. At worst Golson is in a conversation with a handful of others, and, well, what part of his numbers doesn’t merit some overblown, impetuous September chatter about becoming the program’s second Heisman Trophy finalist in three seasons?

“Yeah, let’s put him up for it,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, lacquering his answer with a good amount of exasperation. “Sure. Throw him in there. It’s still really early, he’s got a lot more development to take place, he’s getting better. We’re two weeks into this. Whatever list you got, put him on it.”

Golson’s 226-yard, three-score night against Michigan was an attention-grabber, but gauging Golson’s progress in the larger scheme has more to do with the smaller parts of his craft. Two years ago, in his fourth game as a first-year starter, Golson threw eight passes against Michigan, two of which were intercepted. He was pulled early and Tommy Rees ran a game plan devised for Golson better than Golson did. The moment overwhelmed him and it showed.

Then there was the final possession of the first half on Saturday: Notre Dame leading 14-0 with 1:24 left and no timeouts. The Irish scored in 50 seconds. On one snap of the drive, the pocket began to collapse around Golson and he stepped up, literally bouncing off one of his own linemen. He rolled left, remained composed as two defenders pursued him and then threaded a pass to tight end Ben Koyack along the sideline. It was a modest five-yard gain. Two years ago, who knows what chaos might have ensued with Golson in that pressure situation.

He is not putting the offense in a bad way anymore, though, and those sorts of plays add up. One snap after the Koyack completion, Golson lofted a pass to the end zone that only receiver Will Fuller could catch. Fuller brought it down for a 24-yard score that extended the lead to 21-0 and just about buried Michigan for good. “It’s his understanding of the offense and his understanding of how to read defenses,” receiver Amir Carlisle said, when asked what Golson has done best through two games. “Getting in the film room with him he’s basically an extension of the coaches. His understanding is translating to his performance on the field.”

That is a dramatic difference from 2012, when the offense was nearly remedial and the Irish relied on a stout defense to carry the day. Even before this season, as he talked about his progress while sitting on a couch in the football offices, Golson noted he can actually watch video with the staff and contribute to the conversation.

All of which made Michigan’s humiliation more acute. Forget the three-turnover night from quarterback Devin Gardner, the end to a streak of 365 games without being shut out or the fact that half of the Wolverines were in the locker room after Shumate’s interception and had to slink back on the field for that last snap. Maybe the most damning piece of it was Kelly’s estimation that Michigan decided it was in its best interest to stack the box and dare Golson to beat it, even after he diced up Rice’s secondary a week earlier.

“We were glad to oblige them and throw the football,” Kelly said. “And we probably missed a number of opportunities we would like to have back.”

It seemed like a purposeful knife twist -- and probably was -- but it was also a part of the head coach that has bled into his quarterback. Kelly is demanding, but most critically Golson has learned to demand more of himself. Now Notre Dame has a perfectionist as its passer, which is why a Brian Kelly offense now looks like a Brian Kelly offense is supposed to look.

“I just looked at the stats -- 23-for-34, that’s 11 passes that I missed,” Golson said. “I’m not too happy with that. There were a lot of things I left out on the field, certain situations that I have to be smarter. I’m definitely happy for the win, but there’s a lot of stuff I need to work on.”

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So, how would Golson describe his effort against Michigan?

“I thought it was decent, to be honest,” Golson said.

Others will appraise it a little differently. No one knows exactly where this is going for Notre Dame, especially with a looming October that features games against Stanford, North Carolina and Florida State.

But a young Irish defense thoroughly baffled Michigan and might be farther ahead of schedule than most imagined. The offense is developing skill-position threats even in the absence of receiver DaVaris Daniels, who is sidelined in the school’s academic dishonesty investigation. And the quarterback isn’t giving defenses a chance anyway, getting the ball out quickly and with laser-guided accuracy.

It’s all eyes on Golson and Notre Dame now, after a stadium of almost 80,000 voices bid farewell to Michigan with chorus of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." The end of a rivalry seemed like it could be the beginning of something bigger.

“Avoid the noise, avoid the noise,” Golson said. “People are going to talk, that type of thing, whether it’s good or bad. But you have to keep your head on what really matters. That’s my guys around me. That’s where it starts.”

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