SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The plan all along was to develop a redshirt freshman quarterback, all while trying to fulfill the lofty expectations annually placed on Notre Dame. That created a balance in the early and middle parts of the season, with seasoned junior Tommy Rees acting as a safety net for a greenhorn in Everett Golson.
But in the latter portion of the 2012 season, Golson has come far enough in his development to the point where there may not be a safety net. With back-to-back good games under his belt -- albeit against less-than-stellar defenses -- it appears Golson has traded in his learner's permit for a driver's license.
"I think so," Kelly responded when asked if Golson was at the point where he'd play through any struggles. "The interception he threw -- we were at a point where it was pretty clear Wake Forest was having difficulty stopping us. For us to give the ball up, those are the foolish and careless mistakes that he made early in the year. But he's so much further along, that those are ones that he comes to the sideline and says something before you say something to him, and you know he's on that right trend in terms of understanding."
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When Kelly yanked Golson midway through the second quarter of Notre Dame's win over Michigan in September, it was because his first-year starter was lost and "mentally done." Golson was making mistakes, and he couldn't explain why. A month and a half later, he's become able to diagnose his poor decisions.
"I was kind of mad about a couple of throws that I could have made," Golson said after Notre Dame's 38-0 win over Wake Forest. "Talk about that interception. It was a terrible decision, really terrible decision. I kind of came to the line and looked like a rookie a little bit."
That interception referred to by Kelly and Golson, a heave toward a double-covered Robby Toma in the end zone, maybe wasn't a rookie mistake in the sense of misreading the coverage. It was a rookie mistake in the sense of failing to reign in his confidence, as before that Golson sliced apart Wake Forest's defense with incredible ease.
But outside of that interception, what Golson showed on Saturday was his ceiling as an explosive quarterback. Notre Dame has slowly opened up its playbook for Golson, putting more trust in his playmaking ability from week to week. In Notre Dame's Week 2 win over Purdue -- in which Golson was pulled for the final series -- Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin wouldn't have thought about letting their quarterback buck a pass 40 yards toward the end zone.
"He's got the ability to throw it, he can run the football, he's elusive," Kelly summed up Saturday. "I think we're seeing a guy that's growing each and every week."
The next step, now, for Golson is to win at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to send Notre Dame to the BCS Championship game. That's plenty of pressure to put on a player making only his 10th career start. But Golson has been at his best playing in other hostile environments -- his performance facing a record-setting crowd at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium helped spur Notre Dame's title run. And his experience playing in all the close games at Notre Dame Stadium, too, could come in handy if the Irish get locked in a neck-and-neck battle.
And if he can put all that together and not only avoid turnovers, but play to his potential against USC, it may be time to book your flight to Miami.
"All of it, the nine games that he's started, winning on the road, having to come in and lead our football team to a win against Pittsburgh, all of those things go in to Saturday," Kelly said. "And all those will be positives for him going into the USC game."