By Adam Hoge-
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CBS) Holding onto a 10-6 lead in Norman, Okla. Oct. 27, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o went over to his quarterback and uttered some of the most important words of the season.
“We got you. We’re going to take care of our part, we got you, whatever you do, we got you,” quarterback Everett Golson recalled Te’o saying to him.
“Just having him and having a defensive player just encouraging me like that has helped me out a lot and made me more confident and comfortable.”
Ask any player or coach when it clicked for Notre Dame’s redshirt freshman quarterback this season and they’ll all tell you: “Oklahoma.”
Te’o and the defense didn’t completely live up to their word, allowing Oklahoma to tie the game at 13 with 9:10 left in the fourth quarter. But the linebacker’s words still had a profound effect on Golson, who took the ball on the next possession and marched 73 yards down the field in four minutes to secure the road win for the Irish. Golson completed all four pass attempts on the drive for 74 yards, shook off a sack and scored the go-ahead touchdown himself on a 1-yard run.
“I just felt like how he ran on the field at Oklahoma gave our whole team confidence because he seemed very comfortable and calm out there,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said Friday. “His non-verbals on the field were outstanding that night and to me that’s the night that I really saw the maturation.”
But it certainly wasn’t an easy road to Norman Oct. 27 and it wasn’t even easy after. Golson has been a work in progress for Notre Dame all season — the ultimate risk/reward type guy — but he’s also only the second freshman quarterback in Irish history to win each of his first 10 starts.
“It was just a process,” Martin said. “We knew we were going to stick with it. I don’t know that he knew we were always going to stick with it, but there was never any doubt in our mind of what he was going to become for us.”
The Myrtle Beach native and one-time North Carolina commit ended up at Notre Dame thinking he was ready to play right away. The coaches didn’t see it that way though. Golson redshirted and spent most of the 2011 season on the scout team.
“I thought I was ready to play or had that confidence that I was steady to play, but it wasn’t that way for me,” he said. “I think being put back on the scout team really humbled me, made me kind of reassess myself.”
Even after he was named the starter for the season-opening game in Dublin, Ireland, Golson’s confidence wasn’t as high as it was when he first stepped on campus. And despite Notre Dame winning each week, Golson was constantly being juggled by the coaching staff as head coach Brian Kelly used junior Tommy Rees in many crucial situations earlier in the season.
“If you think of it just from an Everett Golson standpoint, there had to have been, at times, questions about, ‘Does coach Kelly want me to be the guy here? Is this my job or Tommy Rees’ job?,'” Kelly said back in South Bend Dec. 17. “Even though we told him it was his, those actions probably weren’t clear enough for him.”
Then Oklahoma happened, and one would have thought it would be Golson’s job from there on out. But the next week, against Pitt, Notre Dame’s offense was virtually non-existent in the first half and once again, Kelly called on Rees.
Golson admitted he was “a little surprised” by the move, considering what he had done in Norman the week before, but he said it served as a good reminder that he can’t get over-confident.
“You never want to get complacent with where you are,” the quarterback said. “I think that really reemphasized that I have to keep doing that.”
Eventually Kelly went back to Golson and he ended up leading a fourth quarter comeback, even shaking off a late red zone interception in doing so and Notre Dame used some luck in overtime to survive in what was probably the defining moment of the season thus far.
Since that game, Golson hasn’t looked back. It’s been his offense, with Kelly making a statement by going with the redshirt freshman exclusively in Notre Dame’s road win at USC to clinch a BCS National Championship Game berth.
But now comes the biggest test of the season. And Kelly knows Golson has to make big plays through the air.
“Oh, there is no question. We’re not going to be able to run it at will against the defense that we’re going to see in Alabama. We’re going to have to throw the football,” Kelly said. “We’re going to have to find some big‑chunk plays. He’s going have to be integral in that. He knows that and we know that. I think Alabama knows that, too.
“He’s got to be a guy this creates some plays for us at the quarterback position.”
Thus, the natural question is whether or not a redshirt freshman can handle the bright lights, compared to Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, who won the National Championship Game last year.
But staying calm is one of Golson’s greatest attributes. He may make mistakes, but he rarely panics, a quality that has its roots in his love for music. He plays piano and keeps a keyboard in his room in South Bend.
“There’s many times where I come from practice or come from class and I’ll just sit down and play,” he said. “It’s more so my outlet, kind of lets me get away from what’s actually going on, what I’m actually doing.”
Golson will need more than a keyboard to get away from Alabama’s front-seven, but his offensive coordinator isn’t worried about his quarterback playing well on the big stage.
“He’ll realize pretty quickly it’s like any other game,” Martin said. “I’d say the first series isn’t … but once those big guys start chasing him around, instincts take over. I guarantee you the first set of drives he probably won’t be thinking this is the National Championship, he’ll be thinking: I’ve got to find a window to throw the ball.”
It will take Golson’s finest effort yet to find those windows and execute, but if he does, the Irish will have a great chance to bring their first National Championship since 1988 back to South Bend.