SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson swears he was excited to try the Blaster. The contraption, a gauntlet of padded metal bars mounted on springs designed to challenge a players’ grip on the football at a variety of points, had been used almost exclusively by the Fighting Irish backs and wide receivers. But after Golson fumbled five times in the past three games, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly ordered the quarterbacks to add it to their practice regimen. And despite Golson’s insistence that he enjoyed the experience, Kelly remembers that first meeting of man and football torture device differently. “He wouldn’t even walk near that thing before he started fumbling the ball,” Kelly said.
The fumbles drive Kelly mad. The four interceptions Golson tossed in wins over Syracuse, Stanford and North Carolina? Kelly can live with those. Those were throws made within the framework of the offensive system, and they weren’t all Golson’s fault. The fumbles? Golson gets 100 percent of the blame. He left the ball exposed as tacklers crashed down upon him. “We took all of his fumbles, and they are all contact-related fumbles," Kelly said. "That’s what we need to eradicate.”
Golson can’t make those mistakes against Florida State on Saturday. The Irish already face a talent deficit in what could be a College Football Playoff elimination game. Turnovers would doom them. Golson understands this. He has beaten himself up all week, mentally and with the Blaster. “It’s just seeing how it affects the team,” Golson said. “I’m putting our defense in bad situations.”
If Golson carries the ball like a loaf of bread in Doak Campbell Stadium, 300-pound defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. will knock it loose. Then reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston will trot out behind a line of future pros and decide whether he wants to throw to receivers Rashad Greene or Bobo Wilson or tight end Nick O'Leary. It will be that easy for the Seminoles if Golson makes it so.
But if Golson can protect the ball, if he can instinctively clamp down when he feels a tackler coming, then he can use his mobility as a weapon to open up the Notre Dame offense. Kelly believes Golson is barely scratching the surface of what he can do because of circumstances created by Kelly and those created by Golson.
In 2012, Golson helped the Irish to a 12-0 regular season and a berth in the BCS title game playing in an offense that kept him reigned in. A 50-yard bomb to Chris Brown in the fourth quarter at Oklahoma was one of a few hints at what Golson could do. Kelly limited Golson on purpose. Notre Dame's defense was excellent that year; Kelly trusted it more than he trusted his redshirt freshman quarterback.
Kelly had hoped to open things up for Golson in 2013, but Golson made that impossible. He cheated on a test and got suspended from school for the fall semester. While the Irish offense struggled under Tommy Rees, Golson went to San Diego to work with quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. Golson worked hard because of the guilt of getting suspended -- and the guilt over his parents depleting their savings to pay for Whitfield's training and lodging in San Diego -- and honed his mechanics while also getting stronger and heavier in the weight room. But he couldn't help the Irish score touchdowns.
When Golson returned to South Bend in January, Kelly finally installed offense he wanted. “When he got back here, we really tried to fit the offense to what his skill set is. What you saw [in 2012] was an offense that really didn’t take advantage of what his true skill set was, and then when he came back, we really tried to feature it. So, [the improvement] maybe looked a little bigger than it was because of that.”
This year, Notre Dame's offense looks more like the one Kelly ran at Cincinnati. The pocket moves. The screen game works. Kelly feels more comfortable calling the plays. It also puts more stress on the defense because Kelly can use the entire width of the field in the passing game. “First of all, it’s the launch point," Kelly said. "You could have drawn a circle on the field where Tommy Rees was going to be. From a defensive standpoint, it just makes it so much easier to set what you want to do. I can move Everett from sideline to sideline.”
The mere threat that Golson might run also helps Notre Dame's overall run game. With a standard drop-back passer, a run play against an eight-man box requires eight blockers. A quarterback as mobile as Golson can read an unblocked defender or simply make someone miss. That allows for fewer blockers, and it also opens up play-action passes later because the offense can simulate runs that worked with fewer blockers and send the extra players out as receivers.
Still, there are things Kelly wishes Golson did more like Rees. “It works both ways. Tommy was extremely disciplined in his route progression," Kelly said. "He would go one, two, three, four and got the ball out. Everett might go one, two, two, two, two, two, scramble, scramble. We want him to go one, two, three four.”
If Kelly wants to see a quarterback who can read progressions perfectly but still tuck and run when he gets in trouble, he need only look across the field. That's what makes Winston so effective, and it's why he won the Heisman last year. He doesn't run unless he has to, and he almost always identifies the correct target. If Golson keeps developing, he could develop a similar skill set. Golson knows this, but he also knows he can't get so wrapped up in pocket passing that he ignores the mobility that separates him from other rocket-armed quarterbacks. “I definitely want to get better as a pocket passer, but I also have to remain who I am," he said. "That’s what got me to this point. I don’t want to try to be somebody that I’m not.”
Florida State won't try to trick Golson much. The Seminoles are so athletic that their coaches wisely allow them to use their superior physical gifts rather than bog them down with a complicated scheme. “This will probably be the least complex defense he’ll see," Kelly said. "What you see is what you get. … They can afford to just say, ‘This is what I’ve got. Come beat me.’ They’re big. They’re physical. They’re fast on the edge. They can play man-to-man coverage. It allows them to not be put in compromising situations as much with formations and tempo and things like that. They can get tired, but you can’t compromise them as much.”
Since the Seminoles can do all this, it's a given they will hit Golson regularly. Can he hold on to the ball? “There’s a point where you get just kind of fed up," Golson said. "I think that’s where I am. I’m definitely not going to turn the ball over.”
If Golson can accomplish that, he'll move one step closer to becoming the quarterback Kelly believes he can be. He might also help the Irish pull an upset. "His best football is ahead of him, which is nice," Kelly said. "It’s always nice to be a football coach at a school where your quarterback is your best player and his best football is ahead of him.”
• Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh: If the Panthers, losers of three consecutive games, feel like pulling out of their skid, now is the time. This is the second of five straight ACC Coastal Division games. If Pitt can start a streak in the other direction, it can still have a successful season. Maybe playing tailback James Conner at defensive end will provide the spark. Meanwhile, the Hokies can jump right back into the division race with a win.
• Utah at Oregon State: If not for a second-half collapse against Washington State on Sept. 27, the Utes would be undefeated. We’ll find out whether their win over UCLA on Oct. 4 was a fluke over the next month. After visiting Corvallis, Utah faces USC, Arizona State, Oregon and Stanford. The Beavers will try to help reverse an odd trend. So far this season, the away team is 14-4 in Pac-12 games.
• Baylor at West Virginia: After winning a shootout against TCU, the Bears take the longest trip on the conference schedule. In Morgantown, they’ll face a West Virginia team buoyed by a comeback win in Lubbock last week. After allowing 58 points in the first 49 minutes of last Saturday’s game, Baylor’s defense got three consecutive stops. That allowed the Bears’ offense to crank into unstoppable mode and score 24 points in the same span. If the Mountaineers allow the Bears to stuff them on three consecutive possessions at any point, it could open the door to a blowout. If West Virginia can break Baylor’s rhythm by combining a few stops with a lot of scoring drives, we might see another 70-63 scoreboard-rattler.
• Kansas State at Oklahoma: In the past two weeks, the Sooners have lost to TCU and made a win over Texas look much more difficult than it should have been. But all their goals remain in front of them. If Oklahoma keeps winning, a Big 12 title and a playoff berth are attainable. The problem this week? The Sooners face a Kansas State team coming off a bye, and coach Bill Snyder is a wizard. Snyder developed a great plan for Auburn’s unique offense earlier this season, so expect him to have something cooked up for the Sooners. One guess? He’ll load the box to take away the run and force quarterback Trevor Knight (55.1 percent completion percentage) to successfully get the ball to his receivers. That could backfire if Knight is on target. Last year against Kansas State, Knight was efficient in the passing game (14-of-20, 171 yards, one touchdown, one interception) and kept the Wildcats honest with his legs (14 carries, 82 yards, one score) as the Sooners notched a 41-31 win in Manhattan.
• Texas A&M at Alabama: The shine has come off this game, as the SEC’s Mississippi teams consecutively whipped the Aggies, while Alabama lost to Ole Miss before giving a lackluster performance at Arkansas. The same questions apply, though. Can the Bama defense finally slow Texas A&M now that Johnny Manziel is gone? The Aggies hung 42 points on the Crimson Tide last season, but their defense couldn’t stop Alabama’s offense and allowed 49. This game could play out in similar fashion. If quarterback Kenny Hill can avoid interceptions, the Aggies can score against a Tide secondary that looked vulnerable against West Virginia and Ole Miss. But the Texas A&M defense, which has improved thanks to some growing up since last season, may still have no answer for Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon.
• Michigan State at Indiana: After Purdue snuck to within seven points of Michigan State in the fourth quarter of the Spartans' 45-31 win last week, coach Mark Dantonio brought out the brimstone in a Sunday night meeting with his team. Michigan State hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in the fourth quarter against Power Five foes this fall. That allowed Oregon to run away with a win on Sept. 6, and it allowed Nebraska and Purdue to turn blowouts into competitive games. If that doesn’t change, it will trip up the Spartans at some point in Big Ten play. Dantonio believes his team will learn, though. “Everything that seemingly is a weakness for you at some point in time strengthens you. I firmly believe that,” he said. “Everything that you go through, the adversity that you go through, the anxiety that you have, will inevitably strengthen you if you look for it to strengthen you. If it allows you to crush your spirit, then you've got problems. But I don’t think there’s where we’re at.”
• Rutgers at Ohio State: The Buckeyes have bounced back from their loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6 and seem to be rolling now. Earlier in the season, the offense was still trying to adjust to J.T. Barrett as the starting quarterback. Ohio State has scored at least 50 points in all three games since the loss to the Hokies, and games against Rutgers, Penn State and Illinois should allow the Buckeyes to get everything fine-tuned before they face Michigan State with the Big Ten East Division on the line.
• Clemson at Boston College: Tigers quarterback Cole Stoudt hadn’t even practiced last week prior to the Louisville game -- he was rehabbing an injured left shoulder -- but he was pressed into action when Deshaun Watson broke his finger. Stoudt, who started Clemson’s first three games, came in and played through intense pain to help the Tigers to a 23-17 win. The offense should run more smoothly this week, thanks to Stoudt’s first-team practice reps. Still, Stoudt isn’t as dynamic as Watson, so the defense will have to limit Boston College’s smashmouth attack in what should be a lower-scoring game than the Tigers became accustomed to with Watson as the starter.
• Georgia at Arkansas (in Little Rock, Ark.): As of Thursday morning there still was no word from Georgia on the status of Todd Gurley, who was suspended indefinitely last week after being accused of taking money for autographs. Gurley has been practicing this week, but his playing fate is in the hands of the NCAA. The Bulldogs didn’t need him to win at Missouri last week, but they would love to have him in Little Rock. The Razorbacks dropped their second consecutive heartbreaker last week against Alabama, but the strides Arkansas has made since last season are undeniable. The Hogs are going to break through with their first SEC win since 2012 soon.
• Oklahoma State at TCU: Defensive-minded coach Gary Patterson, who shifted his Horned Frogs to an up-tempo offense this season, said this week that he needs to accept the new normal. That will help him better prepare for games such as last weekend’s shootout at Baylor, where his team went up 58-37 and lost 61-58. “You have to be able to even the playing field, and maybe we have to get used to winning 45-31,” Patterson told the Dallas Morning News. “Sometimes you get into those ball games. I don’t know how you prepare for that to happen. There’s only one person you can blame, and that’s me.” Patterson shouldn’t be shocked if TCU finds itself in the same kind of game against the Cowboys this week.
• Tennessee at Ole Miss: While Patterson is adjusting to a faster offense, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze -- a pedal-to-the-metal offensive mind -- has his attack moving at a more leisurely pace. The reason? The Rebels’ defense is so good that Ole Miss can afford to milk the clock. The 54 plays Ole Miss ran in a 35-20 win at Texas A&M last Saturday were a low for the Freeze era at Ole Miss.
• Missouri at Florida: The next two games will probably determine whether Will Muschamp stays at Florida. If the Gators can beat Missouri and Georgia, they’ll be in the thick of the SEC East race. Losing to either would be bad. Losing to both would be disastrous. Muschamp said Jeff Driskel will start again for Florida at quarterback, but freshman Treon Harris -- who was reinstated to the team late last week after a woman withdrew her complaint of sexual battery against him -- will play a role. The quarterback who moves the ball will be the one who finishes the game. Meanwhile, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel made clear that Maty Mauk remains the Tigers’ quarterback in spite of an awful day for the offense against Georgia.
• Nebraska at Northwestern: The Wildcats have plenty of reasons to want revenge against the Cornhuskers. Two years ago, Nebraska fans turned Ryan Field into a sea of red. Last year in Lincoln, Northwestern lost on a Hail Mary. Despite a loss to Minnesota last week, the Wildcats can remain very much a part of the Big Ten West Division race with a win over the Cornhuskers. But Nebraska may have an ace in the hole. The actual human behind @FauxPelini, the best Twitter parody account in college football, is rumored to be attending the game.
• Washington at Oregon: The return of left tackle Jake Fisher bolstered the Ducks’ offensive line last week, and they looked like a completely different team than the one that squeaked by Washington State and lost to Arizona. If Oregon can continue to play like the team that whipped UCLA, its Pac-12 title and playoff aspirations are completely realistic.
• Iowa State at Texas: Let’s hope the officials don’t decide this one.
• Stanford at Arizona State: The Sun Devils’ defense should allow the Cardinal offense to boost its confidence. At the same time, Arizona State’s offense will test the Cardinal defense more than it has been all season.
Vintage video of the week
We all know undefeated Notre Dame beat previously undefeated Florida State in a thriller in 1993, and we all know the Irish then lost to Boston College and Florida State went on to claim its first national title. You'll see plenty of archival footage of that game between now and Saturday.
Instead, let's watch NBC's intro to that game. You'll be looking for your helmet when it's over.
On the menu
The best way to prepare for a potential 130-point onslaught such as the one that may take place at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown on Saturday is with a hearty breakfast. So, fuel up at Tudor’s Biscuit World. Get the Huggie Bear (bacon, sausage, egg and cheese), or better yet, get the Mountaineer (country ham, potato, egg and cheese). Country ham, take me home …