Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Everett Golson answers questions at the Notre Dame BCS national championship media day at the Loftus Sports Center. (Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)
Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Sports
FORT LAUDERDALE - The seminal play of this college football season, to the extent you could boil it down to just one, may have occurred on a third-and-goal at Alabama's own 10-yard line and the artist now known as Johnny Heisman lined up in the shotgun.
Almost immediately after the ball was snapped, the pocket had collapsed around Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, as Alabama's powerful defensive line got penetration up the middle. It looked certain that Manziel was about to get buried under crimson jerseys, most notably 6-foot-6 senior Quinton Dial, who seemed to have a clear shot at a sack. But in a blink, Manziel ducked and spun back to his right, danced eight steps to his left and slung a touchdown to the back of the end zone.
"Can't teach that, can ya?" CBS analyst Gary Danielson said on the telecast. "And you can't defend that."
That second quarter touchdown, and that outcome (a 29-24 Texas A&M victory), shaped quite a bit about this season, from the Heisman Trophy race to seemingly invincible Alabama suddenly needing help to get back in the national championship race.
It also exposed a question: Is Alabama susceptible to a quick, improvisational quarterback who can extend plays long enough to exploit what might be the program's only true weakness in the secondary?
We might get a better answer Monday in the BCS national championship game, because that macro description not only describes Manziel but also Notre Dame's Everett Golson.
"They're two different teams, and they do different things," cornerback Dee Milliner said. "But Manziel and Everett are two scrambling quarterbacks that can make plays with their feet, so that's a good comparison."
Make no mistake, Golson isn't Manziel, a redshirt freshman who put up otherworldly numbers against Southeastern Conference defenses and dazzled Heisman voters with improbable pocket escapes and ridiculous throws. Golson, a 6-foot sophomore, has been far more of a work-in-progress this season, with moments of brilliance (the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma game) sprinkled between some inconsistencies that got him pulled at times for senior Tommy Rees.
But the reason Notre Dame has kept going back to Golson is because of what can't be taught. Despite the learning curve and sometimes shaky decision-making, he has that Manziel-ish ability to create something out of nothing.
"Extended plays are how they've made a lot of big plays," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. "You look at their scramble reel, there's a lot of plays that a guy has really great arm talent because he can throw one side of the field to the other. I can see in my mind three plays we watched over and over, he scrambles to his right, throws it all the way across the field to his left to a wide open received where a guy just lost him. They had him covered and they lost him. To that kid's credit, that creates a different angle of the offense that's hard to prepare for."
Golson, who didn't earn the starting job until fall camp, came in as a mystery, even to his coaches. Notre Dame didn't really know what it had, which meant a much more conservative approach offensively than Brian Kelly's teams have typically taken.
But Notre Dame didn't try to hide Golson, either, and put more and more on his shoulders as the season went on. The best example came Oct. 27 against Oklahoma, when he threw for just 177 yards but had a huge fourth-quarter touchdown throw downfield to Chris Brown. The next week, he went 9-of-18 with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Pitt as the Irish came from back a 20-6 deficit.
Golson said the fifth game of the season, when he went 17-for-22 in a blowout victory over Miami, was the turning point in his development.
"If I would have got down on myself or not believed, we wouldn't be sitting here today," Golson said. "I think that built a little bit of confidence in me, and I think what was instilled in me there showed in the Oklahoma game and the Pitt game."
Ideally, Notre Dame would want to score early against Alabama, let its defense play with the lead and limit Golson's mistakes. That's been a pretty successful formula against most teams this year. At some point, though, Golson will have to make some big plays. If he converts, the Irish have a great chance to upset the heavily-favored Crimson Tide.
Notre Dame believes Golson is ready to take on that challenge.
"All together we saw him really into his own and gain his own confidence," receiver T.J. Jones said. "He's been the same as he's been all year; you can tell in how he talks and comes off the sideline he's matured and he's more confident in himself and he knows not to feed too much into how the last drive went."
He's also gotten better in the technical aspects of the game and running what offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said is a pretty sophisticated communication system. When you combine that with his ability to improvise, the Notre Dame offense could be formidable.
"I think it's just been steady improvement as the year has gone on," Martin said. "The nice thing for him, the difficult thing but the nice thing for him is he got thrown in the fire right away. When you come out and you play three Big Ten teams your first four games and two or three huge rivals your first four games, he didn't get to ease into this thing like some young quarterbacks do, so he got put in a bunch of different situations. But I think it's just been steady progress."
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