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If Irish topple Trojans, versatile threat Tate will be big reason why

There was a time when Golden Tate ran one play at Notre Dame: go deep.

Against No. 6 USC on Saturday, he'll run nearly every play in the Irish playbook and occupy every skill position on offense.

Tate's evolution from a freshman burner to a do-everything junior has coincided with the growth of the Notre Dame offense. With Tate and Jimmy Clausen on the field as true freshman in 2007, the Irish finished the year ranked 119th nationally; they stand at No. 10 through five games this season. That progress, however, will truly be measured this week when Notre Dame tries to avenge one of the most embarrassing offensive performances in school history.

Last season at USC, Notre Dame did not earn a first down until the last play of the third quarter and gained 91 total yards on 49 plays during a 38-3 demolition. USC sent several of those defenders to the NFL, but the Trojans still stand No. 6 in the nation in defense and always seem to crank it up a notch when they face the Irish.

For the first time in three years, however, it seems the Notre Dame offense will be up to the challenge, and Tate is a big reason why. The Tennessee native has blossomed in his junior season, producing big plays from all over the field. In Notre Dame's 37-30 overtime win against Washington, Tate caught nine passes for 244 yards and a touchdown. Against Purdue the week prior, Tate caught five passes for 57 yards and carried the ball nine times for 55 yards and a touchdown while lining up as running back and quarterback out of the wildcat formation.

"He is a frontline player and you have to find ways to get the ball in his hands," said Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.

That has become even more apparent for Notre Dame since Michael Floyd, the team's No. 1 receiving threat, went down with a broken collarbone against Michigan State in Week 3. With Floyd out of the mix, defenses figured to focus more on Tate, forcing the Irish to get creative.

"If you just line him up at X where he normally plays, I think you would be asking for a long day for Golden because whether they roll to him in zone or double him in man, he would have a tough day at the office," Weis said. "We've had to put a lot on him mentally so we could put him at different positions that get him an opportunity to get the ball in his hands, and he's handled that very well."

Tate couldn't have displayed that versatility when he first arrived in South Bend. Though he saw some time at receiver at Pope John Paul II (Hendersonville, Tenn.) High, he mostly played running back. His natural athletic ability allowed him to dominate his high school competition, but he did not master the fundamentals and techniques needed in Weis' offense. The Irish only felt comfortable using him on deep routes.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Tate honed his route-running skills as his college career progressed ("That has been his greatest improvement," Weis said). When Floyd went down, Tate embraced the chance to become the Irish's top offensive threat.

"If anything," Tate said, "I look for the spotlight."

Tate found ESPN's spotlight after the Michigan State game, but not exactly in the way he'd pictured. After catching the winning touchdown pass with 5:18 left on the clock, he took a celebratory swan dive into what he thought was the Notre Dame band in the back corner of the end zone. Problem was, it was the Michigan State band, and none of the musical Spartans caught him. Tate landed on his chest first, then on ESPN's 'Not-Top Ten Plays Of The Week'.

Tate also took to the air in overtime against Washington, getting flipped after leaving his feet when a defender took out his legs. A photo of that play, with Tate upside down in midair, made the pages of Sports Illustrated.

Ultimately, though, Tate hopes to find himself on ESPN and in SI for other reasons. His athletic ability has led to success on the diamond as well, where he starts in left field for the Irish baseball team and hit .329 with 13 steals last season. The Diamondbacks drafted Tate in the 42nd round out of high school, but by then he'd committed to Notre Dame and wasn't too concerned with professional baseball.

"I didn't even watch the draft, and I had just gotten a new phone, so people didn't really have my new number," he said. "I checked my MySpace page when I was at the mall, and a poster had written 'congratulations on getting drafted'. That's how I found out."

It is no surprise Tate had people looking out for him in high school. Jeff Brothers, Tate's high school coach, calls him "one of the best young men I've ever been around." Brothers likes to tell the story of when a tornado ripped through Hendersonville in April, 2006. Students were home that day but teachers, including Brothers, were holding parent-teacher conferences at the school.

"Two people called my house to check on my wife," Brothers said. "One was her mother. The other was Golden. That was just typical of him."

Now, Tate hopes for something less typical: an Irish win over the Trojans. He's sensed the excitement on campus with the USC game approaching, though he's been "camped out at the library" with mid-terms this week. He and his teammates know a win would be a long-awaited addition to Notre Dame's history of big wins, and he knows his perfect ending to Saturday's game.

"I want to sing the alma mater and the fight song (after the game) with a smile on my face," he said, "knowing we've accomplished something great for the program."

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