The recent memories of 2012 shouldn't feel fuzzy quite yet. But as often happens with the lore of yesteryear, memories blur. That magical autumn evening when Michigan visited South Bend? For Irish fans, it's likely etched into your memory as the game linebacker Manti Te'o and the Irish defense finally solved Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
When told within the narrative of Notre Dame's historic defensive season, the Irish's 13-6 victory feels like one of the crowing achievements in a season filled with defensive heroics. But when looked at as an offensive performance, it stands alone as the worst football game quarterback Everett Golson has ever played.
Go ahead and dig. Find a contest Golson played in which he struggled more with a game that he manages to play so naturally. Turn back the clock to Myrtle Beach High School, South Carolina. Even as a 152-pound freshman, Golson never struggled the way he did before head coach Brian Kelly pulled the plug and inserted Tommy Rees into the game.
For as tough of an evening as Robinson had—and four interceptions on 13-of-24 passing is mighty tough—Robinson's 31.0 QBR was roughly 20 times better than the number Golson put up. That's what happens when everything seems to go wrong on the biggest night of your career.
And while the win ultimately removed Golson's place from the memory banks of even the most ardent Irish fans, you can bet the game still serves as motivation for a quarterback not shy on fuel these days.
Before we focus on the quarterback we saw last Saturday serving as a one-man wrecking crew, we need to take a look at the gory details of Golson's first effort against a Greg Mattison defense. While Irish fans hope the scar tissue wears like character, it's a worthy exercise to examine just how wrong things went.
It starts from the very beginning. On Golson's first snap with the team pinned inside its own 10-yard line, he stares down wide receiver Chris Brown and underthrows a pass that finds Michigan cornerback Raymon Taylor's arms. Flustered, Golson commits a 10-yard facemask penalty, setting up the Wolverines for a perfect scoring opportunity they couldn't cash in on.
On his next dropback, Golson doesn't pull the trigger on a quick slant to tight end Tyler Eifert and scrambles for nothing instead. Given an easier throw, Golson sails a quick hitch over wideout DaVaris Daniels' head, nearly pegging an unsuspecting student manager manning the Gatorade bucket.
The Irish survived another Michigan drive, taking the ball back after a halfback pass ended up in safety Nicky Baratti's arms in the Notre Dame end zone. Four straight runs led to an Irish 3rd-and-4, with offensive coordinator Chuck Martin calling the highest-percentage throw in the playbook: a quick screen. Golson's first completion of the evening comes almost 18 minutes in but falls well short of a first down.
Michigan's next drive lasted just three snaps, with Robinson hitting Te'o in the No. 5 as the Maxwell Award winner returned the interception inside the Wolverines 20. But dropping back on a play-action pass, Golson misses Eifert, who had three steps on his defender in the end zone. Then he tried to thread a pass to tight end Troy Niklas in a sea of maize and blue defenders. The Irish settle for a field goal, and the lone score of the game at that point pushes Notre Dame ahead 3-0.
Michigan's next play was Robinson's second straight interception. It also gave Golson another chance to build some momentum. He hits running back Theo Riddick on a designed checkdown that goes for 13. He throws a strike over the middle to Daniels for 16 more.
But inside the red zone, Golson's final mistake is one of the worst of his career. On 2nd-and-goal, he's flushed right, and an offensive holding flag is thrown as he escapes. But instead of throwing the ball away, Golson tries to feather an ill-advised pass toward a flock of jerseys, missing T.J. Jones and Daniels but finding the arms of Michigan safety Thomas Gordon.
Golson's totals for that evening: 3-of-8 for 30 yards, two interceptions, a QBR of 1.6 and a spot on the bench in the middle of the second quarter.
"I've been there," Rees told me on Monday night.
Irish fans have reminded him enough, especially after throwing 22 interceptions in his first two seasons in South Bend.
"Those games happen, and luckily for me and for the team, we had two quarterbacks who had experience and that played that year and were able to help us win."
Notre Dame doesn't have that luxury this year. And if the Irish are going to win, they're going to need Golson to redeem himself against an opponent Irish fans have come to despise over all others.
Last Saturday's statistical assault was fine and dandy. But for Golson's redemption story to be complete, he needs to help Kelly slay a dragon that's taken three of four from him since he arrived in South Bend.
Kelly: There's a bit of unpredictability with Greg (Mattison).... He makes you stay up late wondering where those pressures will come from— Mark Snyder (@Mark__Snyder) September 2, 2014
That means beating a Mattison defense that TKO'd Golson in the second quarter. The Wolverines' veteran coordinator understands that the quarterback stepping on the field Saturday to lead the Irish hardly shares the same DNA as the one who let the moment define him that cold September night.
"To me, watching him on tape, I don't remember three years ago," Mattison said this week. "He has a really strong arm. I mean, he has thrown so many deep passes in this last game, more than you usually would, that were on the money.
"I see a guy that's not only mobile but has a really strong arm, and he's becoming a real complete quarterback in my mind."
How Golson became that quarterback has been fairly well established. A semester away from campus after a university-imposed suspension put Golson in San Diego, 2,000 miles away from a football program that expected its rising star quarterback to lead it in 2013.
Instead, Golson worked on his game in exile, rebuilding a skill set that came naturally with the help of quarterback coach George Whitfield.
"When you watched him, and he was young, he would just go out there and compete and then just try to make plays," Whitfield said this winter. "He's a playmaker, and he's a competitor, and those are the two things he was going out and winning games with."
Golson returned to school for the spring semester armed with an advanced knowledge of the game. That meant knowing what he didn't know the season before.
You can absolutely see the calming affect of #ND QB coach Matt LeFluer on Everett Golson. LaFluer, former NFL coach, has been great for EG!— George Whitfield Jr. (@georgewhitfield) August 30, 2014
"He recognizes that in his first year here at Notre Dame, he had training wheels on, and we played to the strength of our defense," Kelly said this spring on SiriusXM's College Sports Nation. "He certainly has so much more developing to do. And I think that's what he recognized. This isn't just getting back to where I was. This is, 'Boy, I need to get so much better.' "
Golson returned to a program with a new offensive leader. With Martin gone to run the Miami RedHawks program, Kelly reclaimed play-calling duties while handing over the coordinator job to trusted lieutenant Mike Denbrock.
Returning to the spread attack that Kelly insisted upon installing from the moment he arrived in South Bend, he hired his first quarterback coach at Notre Dame, tabbing former Washington Redskins quarterback coach Matt LaFleur to run the position group.
Having just worked with a fairly well-known dual-threat quarterback in Robert Griffin III, LaFleur came armed with firsthand knowledge of what it takes to make it on Sundays. That he coached the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year didn't go unnoticed by his new pupils.
"I show them film that I've acquired from the NFL all the time. I think those guys like to see that," LaFleur said this August. "They like to watch RGIII, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. They also like watching a guy like Russell Wilson because they are both running and throwing quarterbacks."
It's Wilson whom LaFleur thinks Golson has the chance to be the most like.
"The guy that he's most similar to is Russell Wilson," LaFleur told me. "Everett is exceptionally quick, there's a reason why he got scholarship offers to play Division I basketball. He can cut on a dime. When you combine that with his ability, he's got a live arm."
That live arm was on display last Saturday, especially on the 53-yard laser Golson threw for a touchdown to receiver C.J. Prosise just before halftime. Golson did so on the move, rolling left, being hit and slightly off-balance. It's the type of play that Golson can just do naturally.
"The things where he's doing Everett and buying time and making a great throw down the field for a touchdown, that's always kind of been in his repertoire," Rees said. "But those are tough throws."
The true measurement of a quarterback is his ability to win. Golson has shown a knack for doing that, teaming with Kelly to do a fairly prolific job. Beginning his fifth season at Notre Dame, Kelly is 12-1 when Golson plays. He's 25-14 when he doesn't.
Now, the quarterback needs to be the reason why the Irish win, with Kelly quipping that Golson "rode the bus" in 2012, a redshirt freshman doing anything he could to survive.
Golson's the only one capable of driving the bus, not just by scoring touchdowns by the bushel, but by understanding that this team needs him as one of its leading voices.
"One thing that I've noticed is his leadership," LaFleur said of Golson. "He took control right from the get-go, not only with the offense, but also with the team. I feel like the guys look to him as a leader."
On Saturday night, Golson will need to carry the Irish, putting to the back of his mind his last attempt at beating the Wolverines, a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat thanks to some defensive heroics and missed Michigan opportunities.
In a proud football program that wants nothing more than a return to glory, Golson has that opportunity, with his off-field mistakes in the past and his best football ahead of him.
"There's a confidence that he carries with him that is starting to emanate," Kelly said after the victory over Rice. "That's going to only get better and better as he gains more confidence."
Doing it against the Owls is one thing. Doing it against Michigan? Now you're talking.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.