SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame is off to its best start in a decade, and Everett Golson is still its starting quarterback.
In the second quarter of Notre Dame's 13-6 win over No. 18 Michigan, Golson was pulled in favor of Tommy Rees, just as he was two weeks ago late in the Irish's 20-17 win over Purdue. Rees' insertion into that game was explained in baseball terms by coach Brian Kelly, who said it was similar to a manager pulling his starter for a closer at the end of a contest.
But since closers generally aren't used in the fourth inning of baseball games, this instance was different. Golson had thrown two interceptions, and both were potentially costly. The first came backed up in Notre Dame territory, the second came in its own end zone.
"I don't really believe it's a matter of confidence as much as he just has to settle down," Kelly said. "He was not as comfortable as I could have liked after playing the Michigan State game, where he was in an incredible environment. He just needs to settle down a little bit, and he's going to be fine."
But Golson wasn't appearing to be fine on Saturday, and Notre Dame's coaches turned to Rees, who completed eight of 11 passes for 115 yards. More importantly, Rees didn't turn the ball over, allowing Notre Dame's stout defense to hold Michigan to just a pair of field goals.
"He's just a great asset to have if you need him," Kelly said. "To close out a game, we'll continue to go that route. We'd like to continue to develop Everett so we don't have to do that, but we're still going to try to win football games any way possible."
Rees has done plenty of 180s in the last few months, going from Notre Dame's turnover-plagued starter in 2011 to off the depth chart completely to sliding in as Golson's safety net. Rees threw his share of back-breaking interceptions last year, but in 2012 he's gained the trust of his coaching staff to hold on to the football.
Golson hasn't got there yet.
"Having dealt with poor performances and coming back, I'm going to give him my two cents," Rees said of what he'll say to Golson. "He'll listen and we'll continue to work hard and get ready."
The Golson-Rees relationship has grown ever since the pair roomed together during fall camp. Back then, Rees wasn't under consideration for the No. 1 quarterback job, as he was relegated to the sidelines thanks to a one-game suspension. Golson lauded Rees' attitude during August, and a month later it was Rees lauding Golson's attitude toward being temporarily benched.
"He was real supportive, and he talked to me about some things he was seeing," Rees said. "He couldn't have been more positive.
"I didn't know him all that well before spring ball and camp, but he's a great kid. He's got high character. I've really enjoyed getting to know him and being close, and I think our relationship is going to continue to grow and continue to get better."
Saturday's contest may be a microcosm for Notre Dame's season: a defense-oriented, grind-it-out victory in which the offense doesn't do anything special. The Irish forced five Denard Robinson turnovers, four of which were interceptions, the product of a swarming defense that put pressure of the star Michigan quarterback all night long. And with a seven-point lead and time winding down, Notre Dame bled the clock out.
Rees' 38-yard strike to Tyler Eifert sealed the deal, and stood in stark contrast to the myriad of woes that faced Notre Dame late in games during the 2011 season.
"That's what different about this team. Last year, we couldn't do that," said running back Theo Riddick, who also played an important role in the fourth quarter Saturday. "It was so many games that we lost just because we couldn't pull it out. This year, we have gained that mental capacity and determination overall to just do our job and settle down when we know what we have to do."
Notre Dame didn't execute with Golson under center in the fourth quarter. Instead, it was Rees, although Kelly insisted Golson is the team's starting quarterback going forward, even if there's the potential for him to be pulled in favor of Rees.
"Regardless of what you say, Everett's our guy," Riddick said. "Tommy did a great job today and we commend him for rallying us up and getting this W."