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NORMAN, Okla. – The Notre Dame football program has been searching for the right formula to return to the top of the collegiate football world for nearly a quarter of a century. Who knew that it would have to travel to the plains of Oklahoma to find the final piece to the puzzle?
The fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (8-0) got exemplary play in a lot of ways and from a lot of players in Saturday's stunning 30-13 victory at Oklahoma in front of a record crowd of 86,031, but no performance was as significant for the future of this team than that of its quarterback.
“I thought Everett Golson led our team,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “He had been challenged to continue to grow – it has been a process – but I thought tonight was a big step up for our quarterback.”
It goes without saying that the Irish defense is worthy of carrying this program to the national championship game. After all, the Sooners entered Saturday's game averaging nearly 45 points and they scored one touchdown.
Offensively, the Irish line, receivers, running backs, and their All-American tight end (Bishop Dwenger graduate Tyler Eifert) are each good enough to compete and make plays against any team in the country. However, the one component of this year's squad that would be cause to scrap any national title plans has been the inconsistent play at quarterback.
Whether it be the immature and reckless play of Golson, or the inadequate play of junior back-up Tommy Rees, the quarterbacking of this team was sure to be the downfall of this season.
The last two times that Golson faced an opponent of this stature was against Michigan and Stanford. Against the Wolverines he was so inept that Kelly yanked him in the first half and he never took the field again that day.
In an overtime win against Stanford, he fumbled the ball away three times before being knocked from the game by a Cardinal defender, not Kelly. So Kelly didn't really know what to expect from the first-year starter against the eighth-ranked Sooners (5-2).
“He led,” Kelly said of his favorite aspect of Golson's game on Saturday. “You could sense that he was leading. He was communicating. He was talking. He was doing things that you hope, as you go through this process that you start to see.”
Golson exhibited not only the playmaking ability to lead this team against any other, but he also showed a physical toughness and level of intelligence that Notre Dame fans haven't seen up to this point.
“Everett played great,” Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert said. “He made the plays when he needed to and he got rid of the ball when he needed to.”
Exactly. Some of Golson's most impressive plays were long throws into the bleachers when no receivers were open. A month ago (for example the Michigan game), he would have tried to force the ball through multiple defenders.
He made another smart play in the third quarter when he got chased from the pocket in a similar fashion as he had against Stanford, but the difference on Saturday was he advanced the ball as far as he could and just before an Oklahoma defensive back could stick him, he stepped out of bounds. Against Stanford he tried to fight for more yards and fumbled the ball away. On Saturday he gained a first down with his legs and decision making.
“He's still young,” Eifert said. “I don't know what start this is for him, but he's still young and getting better each week.”
Golson's statistics weren't all that impressive. He completed just 13 of 25 passes for 177 yards, but he kept plays alive against a physical Oklahoma pass rush and scrambled for 64 yards – and he didn't turn the ball over once.
“As long as he continues to improve, along with the rest of our team,” Eifert explained, “we'll be fine.”