After starting the year unranked, the Notre Dame football team spent the entire season climbing the polls and chasing the pacesetters. Now, the unanimous top dog in the country, the road to Miami and the BCS national championship game goes through Los Angeles in the regular season finale against Southern California (7-4).
With a defense that has shouldered most of the load this season, the 11-0 and top-ranked Fighting Irish are getting a boost from quarterback Everett Golson's timely and rapid progression
Being pursued is an entirely different dynamic for a Fighting Irish program that hasn’t reached the summit since 1988, nor have they been in position to do so since 1993 — the last time Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 in the nation. With so much riding on Saturday’s trip to face the Trojans, head coach Brian Kelly said he’ll prepare his squad the same way he has all year.
“I think it’s still about how we got here and the preparation and how these guys have transformed themselves into champions by their habits and how they go to work every day,” Kelly said Sunday afternoon. “I wanted to hear what they were talking about in the training room [Sunday], and it has all been the same kind of messaging. It will be, for us, just being consistent with what we’ve done up to this point.”
“I was down in the training room when the guys were popping in today and they all, to a man, know it doesn’t mean much if you’re No. 1 for just three or four days. They understand the importance of the USC game. I was happy to see that they have that kind of maturity to know that it’s all about how we play against USC.”
An 11-0 record required a number of things for Notre Dame this season, starting with how quickly rookie quarterback Everett Golson would be able to mature on the job. There were moments when the sophomore didn’t handle adversity well, and watched from the sideline as junior Tommy Rees kept the Irish undefeated in wins over Purdue and Michigan. Golson learned from those situations, changed his attitude, took notes and identified weaknesses.
It spilled over into film study, where Kelly and Golson dissected the movements and decisions of some of the top NFL signal callers. Last week, the focus was on Peyton Manning.
“Well, we were using clips of a number of quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “We’re working on footwork and setting his feet and communication. As you know, Manning is probably one of the great communicators — his ability to get into plays and check and do it efficiently. We have cutups that we try to use [of] some of the greats to show some things that could be helpful.”
“Actually, Wednesday night I was kind of acting like a little like Peyton Manning and stuff like that,” Golson said after the 38-0 win over Wake Forest. “I wanted to emulate that the next day in practice. I think that's what [Kelly] was so proud about —making the correct checks and showing that we've been getting the concepts.
“… I was just going through checks. Most of the checks are something that we've never gone over or things like that. But just like I said, just showing that I actually had the concepts and knowing where I wanted to get the ball, that's what he was so proud of, me kind of progressing. Like I said, he saw all that progression and what they instilled in me.”
Against the Demon Deacons, Golson threw for a career-high 346 yards, finished with three touchdowns and completed 20 of 30 passing attempts. The only smudge on his stat line was an interception in the end zone in the first quarter on a throw to senior receiver Robby Toma. The attempt came from a good place — a desire to see Toma score on Senior Day — but unfortunately was thrown from his back foot into double coverage.
The Wake Forest secondary tempted Golson to be great, and other than the pick, he was.
“I think it’s twofold,” Kelly said. “There’s still a lot to be learned in terms of the game itself — the situations in the game — and understanding time and plays, when to throw the ball away, when not to take a sack, all of those things. Those can’t happen in the classroom. Those things will continue to evolve as he plays. Then there are some fundamental things that have to continue to get better. The great thing about Everett is he’s decided that these are the things that we’ve put to him that he’s got to get better at, and he wants to get better at them.”
Golson has gotten better at the right time for the Fighting Irish, which are on the verge of exorcising decades of their own demons. Notre Dame has averaged 458.2 yards of total offense per game over the last five contests. In the five games that followed the season opener against Navy, the Irish put up 367.2 yards per game, a figure boosted by a 587-yard effort in a 41-3 blowout over Miami on Oct. 6.
"Everett, man, he played the best game of his life and it just shows how much he's grown as a person and as a player,” fifth-year senior John Goodman said. “He is taking his coaching and taking his leadership and he's the guy that we want to lead us to the promise land."