Sizing up Mr. Octobers for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Everett Golson’s stay in the NCAA record book didn’t even last 24 hours.

The Syracuse stat crew, in charge of official NCAA stats from Saturday night’s neutral-site football matchup between Notre Dame and the Orange, admitted a mathematical fumble on Sunday, nudging the Notre Dame quarterback out of his place in history.

ABC-TV, covering Notre Dame’s 31-15 turnover-tainted dispatching of Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., actually had it right in real time.

A telephone debate ensued between the crew in the ABC truck and the one in the press box, but the Syracuse group left the site believing Golson shared the FBS record for consecutive pass completions within a single game with former East Carolina QB Dominique Davis with 26.

The error came in the form of a six-yard pass to Will Fuller late in the second quarter that was actually negated by an illegal-formation penalty. Thus, Golson finished with 25, still 11 more than any quarterback at Notre Dame had ever done, but one short of Davis’ mark.

For the record, the passes in the streak went for 7 yards, 10, 8, 9, 6, 10, 23 and a TD, 72 and a TD, 4, 3, 13, 9, 17, 7, 7, 12, 18, 8 and a TD, 22, 4, 6, 8, 9, 1, and finally 13 and a TD.

Golson did reach a milestone of sorts, though, Saturday night. And it was a big one.

With his 14th victory in 15 career starts, the senior from Myrtle Beach, S.C., nudged past Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack (20-1-1) for the best winning percentage as a starter in school history (.933 to .932).

Perpetuating that lead is the number that matters most to Irish fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly, who saw UCLA leapfrog into the No. 8 spot in the AP poll Sunday, knocking his Irish (4-0) down a peg to No. 9.

Golson’s other numbers four games into the season read like an infomercial for both private offseason QBs coach George Whitfield Jr. and his in-season tag team of position coach Matt LaFleur and Kelly.

Among them, Golson is sixth nationally in points responsible for per game, 18th in passing efficiency and 20th in total offense.

Those alone would make Golson the No. 1 figure as to whether the Irish can advance deeper into the national playoff discussion during a tough October schedule or recede into the pack of good-but-flawed teams outside the top 10.

Some of the others on the list of October’s potentially pivotal figures are not so obvious. And Golson’s inclusion has more layers than simply his four-game résumé.

The most ominous is Golson’s potential to get deeper into the Heisman Trophy discussion, which sounds much more benign than it actually is. The more success Golson has, the more networks, for example, will want to have one-on-one time with him for TV packages with soft piano music in the background.

Kelly saw first-hand in 2012 with linebacker Manti Te’o, the eventual Heisman runner-up, just how challenging that can be.

“When you're a quarterback at Notre Dame, if you're having success and you're 4-0, those things are going to be there,” Kelly said. “But I think the real challenge is … critically looking at what you do on a day-to-day basis and looking at the things that you can get better.

“If you do that and you're grounded truly in that, then all that other stuff is fine. But if you're being affected by all the talk, then that's where you have an issue. So far I haven't seen that with Everett. He looks at things critically and wants to get better every day.”

He’ll have to this week. The Irish go from playing the 106th-best pass-efficiency defense in the nation to No. 5 when 14th-ranked Stanford (3-1) comes to town Saturday as a one-point favorite.

The Cardinal, turnover-prone and sputtering offensively, nonetheless, lead the nation in total defense.

2. Joe Schmidt, senior, middle linebacker: You really don’t get the sense of how much of an underdog the former walk-on is from a physical standpoint until you see last year’s starting middle linebacker, Dan Fox, roaming around.

Which is exactly what happened Saturday night in East Rutherford, N.J., when the now Giants rookie linebacker watched his old team play in the facility his new team calls home.

But Schmidt has 30 tackles through four games, second on the team to Jaylon Smith’s 31, with an interception and a forced fumble. For an apples-to-oranges comparison, Te’o had 38 tackles through his first four games in 2012.

Even Kelly, as spring practice started last March, voiced caution over whether the 6-foot, 235-pound Schmidt (and looking shorter and thinner than that) could be an every-down, every-week player. Big, physical, bruising offenses, like Stanford, is probably what the coach had in mind when he made those comments.

“I think he's (already) passed that test,” Kelly said. “Joe is not 255 pounds, and so clearly we've got to be careful with him.”

Stanford hasn’t been as bullying up front to date as last year. The Cardinal rank 69th in rushing offense, down from 22nd last year, and 52nd in sacks allowed, down from 11th.

As for ND and its alternatives? Senior Jarrett Grace (6-3, 253), a former starter, hasn’t played in almost a year since fracturing his right leg in four places. Freshman Nyles Morgan looks the part of a future star, but what about the present?

“I think that as the season progresses, we have to continue to now get Morgan more time on the field. But it's the teams that present multidimensional issues for that (middle) linebacker, and Joe gets us set up to get that defense aligned, and Niles can't do that right now.

“If we get into some more (simple) personnel and power (formations) and things of that nature, we can get Joe a blow here or there, but he's integral to what we do. And we think he can stand up to any kind of offensive structure that we see.”

Part of that confidence comes from the chemistry between Schmidt and the man now playing next to him, converted outside linebacker Jaylon Smith.

“This has been a real big change for him,” Kelly said of the sophomore. “I think he’s handled it well. And he only wants more.

“He is an incredible professional as it relates to film study and wanting to be the best he could be at his craft. He’s made great progress, but there’s a long way to go.”

3. Greg Bryant, running back, sophomore: Potentially the most explosive offensive player on the roster looked surprisingly unsure of himself at times Saturday against Syracuse.

He did nudge out Syracuse punter Riley Dixon as the game’s leading rusher. Bryant had 11 carries for 55 yards, but one of those carries ended up in a lost fumble, just the third by any Irish running back since the start of the 2013 season.

And he ran hesitant in the return game.

“I think sometimes he wants to do a little bit too much,” Kelly said of Bryant. “Greg is going to be fine. There's a lot going on out there, and he wants to make every play a big play. Sometimes three, four yards is OK.

“I think (he) just (needs to) continue to work. He's a young player. Greg Bryant is going to be a great back for us, just one step in a long process of developing a great back here at Notre Dame.”

4. Matt Hegarty, senior, center: ND’s massive offensive line shuffle during its bye week saw four of the five starters swap positions.

And if there is such a thing as a star guard, senior Nick Martin could very well end up as one of those over the balance of the season.

On the flip side, the player who likely will be most tested by opposing defensive coordinators is the man who takes Martin’s place at center, Hegarty.

Can he be physical enough at the point of attack? Can he have good chemistry with Golson? Is he the long-term answer? Hegarty has already answered sizable questions coming back from a career-threatening stroke and subsequent heart surgery.

Offensive lines function as units and not individuals, and the revamped look gave up one sack to the nation’s No. 9 team in that category Saturday and created the push for a respectable 3.9 yards per carry in the running game against the nation’s No. 19 run defense.

“By and large, a good first start from that group, did some good things,” Kelly said of the realignment. “But it's going to be a process for us.

“Look, we did it, because we felt like it was an area that allowed us to grow. And so I think that what we saw in the first game together was that it validated the fact that this group will be able to grow together throughout the season.”

5. Torii Hunter Jr., sophomore, wide receiver: Injuries kept the 6-0, 190-pounder a bystander for the first 16 games of his collegiate career.

He finally made his collegiate debut late in the Syracuse game, but did not do so quietly.

His first collegiate catch was a TD (a 13-yarder from Golson). He also had two rushes for 13 yards, filling the role former Irish receiver TJ Jones did late last season.

“He's a guy that we think we can run the ball with at the receiver position,” Kelly said. “He's a physical kid. We just think he's got an all-around skill set. I think in baseball it's a five-tool player. He's got all those tools that we're excited about getting him healthy.

“I don't even think he's at 100 percent yet. I think we are getting closer to it, but he's just going to add more athleticism to that position.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has led his team to a 4-0 start with a big showdown against Stanford looming Saturday in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)