FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson celebrates after scoring the winning touchdown in the third overtime period against Pittsburgh in an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind. The rankings say Notre Dame is No. 1 going into the BCS championship against Alabama. Plenty of folks aren't buying it, starting with the oddsmakers who currently have the Crimson Tide as about a touchdown favorite for the Jan. 7 meeting in Miami between two of college football's proudest programs. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
Updated: February 3, 2013 6:25AM
SOUTH BEND — Theo Riddick leaned into the huddle and saw it in Everett Golson’s eyes. He saw nerves, he saw confusion, he saw bewilderment, he just might have seen outright fear — a deer in the stadium lights, a redshirt freshman up to his glazed-over eyeballs in pressure, looking lost in front of 82,000 fans at Notre Dame Stadium and millions more watching on television.
“I definitely saw it,” Riddick said. “Coach (Brian) Kelly made the right decision by putting in (backup quarterback Tommy Rees).”
It was Michigan in prime time in September. And it was too much for Golson.
Rees stopped the bleeding — Golson was 3-of-8 for 30 yards with two interceptions when he got the hook — just enough for the Irish to pull out a 13-6 victory, one almost entirely earned by the Notre Dame defense, which snared five interceptions and made Michigan’s star senior quarterback Denard Robinson look like a quivering first-year player himself.
But the alarm had been sounded, the doubts had arisen. Golson was shielded from the media. Kelly offered half-hearted endorsements, saying only that the kid would start each game, never guaranteeing he’d finish any of them. Rees became a folk hero for his team-first attitude and his closer’s mentality. Yet another Notre Dame quarterback controversy took hold, only now it wasn’t a training-camp battle for a team with middling expectations, it was a midseason debate for a team rapidly ascending the national ranks.
But that was all on the outside. Inside Golson’s mind, confidence never wavered. And inside the locker room, there was never a doubt, not after seeing how motivated and angry the humiliation made him. The overwhelmed Golson that Irish fans saw? That was a fluke, say his teammates, who’ve seen the cocky kid smile and talk his way through practices. That was just an off night, says his offensive coordinator, who’s seen nothing but confidence and motivation since.
That was not Everett Golson, says the high school coach who watched Golson win a state basketball championship as a freshman, a state football championship as a sophomore, and another as a senior after missing nine games with a foot injury and returning for the playoffs, rallying Myrtle Beach High past current South Carolina star Jadaveon Clowney’s South Pointe High in the second half.
“He’s always had the ability to push through adversity,” said Myrtle Beach High coach Mickey Wilson. “I think it’s kind of naturally instilled in him. He’s just a winner.”
That’s the real Golson, they say. The one who walked into Norman, Okla., and led a fourth quarter for the ages to beat the Sooners. The one who took one last demoralizing benching against Pittsburgh, only to come back three series later and lead two fourth-quarter touchdown drives and win in triple-overtime. The one who’s leading the top-ranked Irish into the BCS national championship game against the imposing Alabama defense on Jan. 7.
The one who says the magnitude of the moment — which should make a September game against Michigan look like a spring scrimmage — won’t bother him one bit.
“I’m not the type that really succumbs to pressure,” Golson said. “I don’t make any moment bigger than what it is.”
The fact that he made that statement less than three months after freely admitting he did just that against Michigan could be almost comical. Instead, it’s telling. Even Golson says the guy who stood on the sidelines for the second half against Michigan isn’t the same guy who will run out of the tunnel at Sun Life Stadium on Monday. in a few short months, he’s developed and risen as quickly and as surprisingly as his team has.
If Michigan was a wake-up call, and Oklahoma was a coming-out party, then Pittsburgh was when Golson truly grew up. When the cockiness and talent that made him a high school star — when asked if there was any mental adversity to overcome in high school, Wilson simply said, “Not really, he was just that good” — finally merged with the maturity and football education required to be a viable Division I quarterback. When the lessons that Kelly and coordinator Chuck Martin were drilling into his head day after day, practice after practice, film session after film session, truly took hold.
Benched yet again — a personal affront a mere week after his heroic effort at Oklahoma — Golson didn’t sulk. Didn’t stew. He waited for a second chance, and he made the most of it. As Kelly put it, “He led.”
Golson has won at Soldier Field. He’s beaten Stanford. He won at Oklahoma and USC. But he didn’t hesitate when asked what his defining moment was.
“The Pitt game,” he said. “Just because it showed me handling that adversity that I got hit with, being taken out, coming back in. It’s what I wanted to show earlier in the season. It really showed that (Kelly) can trust in me.”
The trust is there now. It’s Golson’s job alone now — he’s the starter and the closer, and everything in between. In the three games since, with the stakes rising higher each week, Golson threw for 763 yards and five touchdowns, against only one interception. The fast-twitch athlete added another dimension to the Irish offense with his stretch plays and zone reads. He’s put Rees back on the bench and put the Irish back atop the college football world, hoping to match fellow South Carolinian Tony Rice by bringing the national championship back to South Bend.
And he’s got three full seasons of eligibility left.
“I’m going to have something to prove until my career is over here,” Golson said. “I’m just a guy who, if I do win one, I want to win two or three more. I’m a competitor.”
Is the BCS stage too grand for Golson? The moment too big? For those who remember the Michigan game, it’s easy to wonder. But for Golson and those who know him best, Michigan wasn’t three months ago. It was a lifetime ago. That was a different guy — a frightened freshman, an overwhelmed kid balancing school and midterms and the dreams of untold millions of fans.
The guy slinging balls in the bright lights, dashing and diving for first downs, laughing and leading his teammates to the brink of a championship? That’s the real Everett Golson. And that’s the one the Irish expect to have — the one they need to have — on Monday.
Will he show up? Only one way to find out. But either way, you’ll be able to see it in his eyes.
“I’d be very, very surprised if he can’t handle the moment,” Kelly said. “He’ll be like anyone else. The nerves will have to settle down, but as he gets into the flow of the game — once you start seeing him smile a little bit, I think everyone that watches him knows that’s when he plays his best.”