While Brian Kelly has made it clear that there is no quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, most of us have not been fooled by the coachspeak. Yes, Everett Golson will start against Miami (FL) on Saturday night at Soldier Field, but the more important question is, who will finish?
Based on the first month of the season, the odds are 50-50 between Golson and Tommy Rees, who was called upon to lead the final drive against Purdue and to replace Golson against Michigan after two interceptions. Kelly has made excuses for him (youth, hand injuries, mid-term exams, etc.), but reality is that he doesn’t fully trust the athletic, strong-armed sophomore to properly execute his offense. Despite Rees’ 19 turnovers in 2011, he’s the one who has earned Kelly’s trust and confidence.
Is it a formula doomed for failure? Not necessarily, as evident by the Irish being 4-0 and ranked No. 9 in the country. Speaking on 790 The Zone’s Southern Football Kickoff Show on Thursday, Kelly said that he was pleased with having Rees, a player who’s already “done cooking," come off the bench if it makes sense given the game situation.
What does this mean for the clash with the Hurricanes on Saturday? Will Rees see meaningful snaps for the third time in four games? Or will Golson seize the moment against a suspect ‘Canes defense and establish a firmer grip on the position that he just a month ago deemed certain to hold for multiple years to come?
Miami’s defense has struggled this season. That’s putting it kindly. The ‘Canes are 114th of 124 FBS teams in total defense, 112th against the run. To be fair, Miami has faced both Georgia Tech and Kansas State, whose rushing offenses are both in the top 15 nationally. However, if Golson can’t consistently move the ball against Miami, he may not be able to do against any of the Irish’s remaining opponents.
Notre Dame’s running game has failed to live up to expectations this season, primarily due to an offensive line that has struggled albeit against three decent Big Ten opponents. Much like Golson, if this unit can’t dominate the trenches this week, then they may just not be nearly as potent as we assumed coming out of fall camp.
An effective running game, which Notre Dame hasn’t had since the season opener against Navy, would strengthen Golson’s staying power. With Cierre Wood now fully entrenched in the lineup after missing the first two games, Saturday should be a breakout night for the Irish ground attack. Anything less than 200 yards would be a disappointment.
Should that happen, Rees shouldn’t have to remove his red hat on Saturday night until the offense goes strictly into clock-killing mode, as was the case against Michigan State, when Rees appeared in a game-clinching series that involved only three handoffs to Theo Riddick. If the junior is forced to enter the game before that point for any reason other than an injury to Golson, then there will officially be a quarterback controversy in South Bend. Without a strong performance on Saturday night, Golson will not make it through all 12 games as the starting quarterback.
A strong performance doesn’t have to mean 350 yards and four touchdowns. It means good decision-making, recognizing one-on-one opportunities for Tyler Eifert and Davaris Daniels and, of course, limiting turnovers. Golson won’t suddenly become a star overnight, but with two weeks to prepare for a below-average defense, there has to be progress on Saturday night.
Golson has been given another chance, one he fully deserves despite a poor performance against Michigan. I fully expect him to make the most of it. However, if he doesn’t, Kelly has a problem. When Kelly has a quarterback problem, we know to whom he will turn. He was the closer against Purdue and the middle reliever against Michigan. If Saturday night doesn’t go as planned, he’ll be the starter next week against Stanford.