For the first 58 minutes and 59 seconds of Saturday’s slippery, sloppy slog between Notre Dame and Stanford, Everett Golson looked nothing like the player who took command of the Fighting Irish’s offense in the first two games of the season against Rice and Michigan.
Golson, whose 2013 season was wiped out due to his own personal mistakes, began this season with the focus and clarity you’d expect from a man who knew he had to make amends for his missteps by giving back to his teammates. A dynamic Everett Golson makes Notre Dame a substantially different team, and that’s why the Irish looked so strong in the first two weeks.
However, against Purdue and Syracuse, Golson and the Irish — perhaps lulled into a certain degree of complacency — didn’t exhibit the sharpness which marked their first forays into the new season. Notre Dame wasn’t seriously tested in either game because its defense was easily able to parry the limp thrusts of the Boilermakers and Orange. Meanwhile, though, the offense labored for much of those games, and against a defense as formidable as Stanford’s, that trend pointed to trouble on the first weekend of October.
Notre Dame’s offense wasn’t necessarily shut down by Stanford, but it came close to meriting such a dubious distinction. The Irish could have tallied two field goals had holder Hunter Smith not botched his simple assignment twice. Notre Dame could have scored more had it not turned the ball over twice.
Stanford’s offense is the one that could barely move on Saturday — the Cardinal have had problems scoring all season, and in this game, they barely eclipsed 200 total yards. Moreover, half of Stanford’s 14 points were created by a defensive fumble recovery on the Notre Dame 12. That fumble was committed by Golson, so when the Irish fell behind, 14-10, with 3:01 left in regulation, Notre Dame was on the verge of losing a game in which its defense gave up only one sustained scoring drive.
That’s not why Golson came to South Bend. It’s not what he had in mind for his return to a college gridiron. With Notre Dame facing fourth and 11 at the Stanford 23 with just over a minute left, Golson faced the kind of pressure situation he stared down so many times in the 2012 season, when he helped lead the Irish to the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.
Would a year removed from this kind of heat leave Golson rusty as a comeback artist, or would it reignite the instincts and know-how that made him an indispensable part of Notre Dame’s 2012 march to the biggest stage on the college football scene?
The answer came quickly enough.
With Stanford rushing only three and putting eight men back in coverage, the Cardinal secondary gravitated to Notre Dame’s flankers, leaving beefy tight end Ben Koyack (is that a tight end’s name or what?) all alone on the left side of the end zone. Koyack, whose hometown is Oil City, Pa. — it sounds right out of central casting — secured a dart from Golson and held on while being knocked out of bounds.
Everett Golson found lightning when on the verge of being struck down himself. The Fighting Irish won a ballgame, yes, but so much more about this college football season is now different as a result of that one play.
First of all, Notre Dame remains unbeaten as a result of this escape. The Fighting Irish must face Florida State as part of an ACC-rich schedule, but as long as they can go 10-2, they’re going to be in the mix at the very least for a New Year’s Day bowl game. This win bought the Irish a good deal of leverage as far as the postseason is concerned. Had Notre Dame lost on Saturday, it wouldn’t have enjoyed much of any leverage in future weeks, but now, the Irish can say that even with a loss to Florida State, they need less help than many other teams in the race for a premium bowl slot.
The bigger story to emerge from this game is that the Pac-12’s College Football Playoff prospects now lie in the league’s southern half. The Pac-12 North has a two-loss Stanford team and a one-loss Oregon team. It’s in the Pac-12 South that the conference owns multiple unbeaten teams. When you realize that Oregon, UCLA and Stanford play each other, it is clear that at this point in time, UCLA is the league’s best bet for the playoff.
Stanford, with two losses, is on the outside looking in, and will need another tidal wave of losses to top teams (such as what happened on Saturday with Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M) in order to get back in the hunt. The Cardinal are at the very end of the line among prominent FBS teams at the moment. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott couldn’t have liked what happened to Oregon on Thursday. This loss by Stanford further narrows the league’s playoff options and possibilities — perhaps not permanently, but certainly in the present tense.
One Everett Golson dart dramatically reshaped this season. Had Stanford defended that fourth-and-11 pass, just imagine how different the outlook would be for the Irish, the Cardinal, and the Pac-12’s top tier as a whole.