SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wasn't exactly making waves when he said earlier this month quarterback Everett Golson "rode the bus" to the 2012 BCS Championship. The Irish ran a basic offense two years ago, a strategy borne out of 2011's turnover-filled disappointment and the possession of an elite defense led by star linebacker Manti Te'o.
Golson didn't have to do much more than avoid turning the ball over for Notre Dame to run through the regular season undefeated. He made big throws at Oklahoma and against Pitt that set up critical back-to-back victories, but otherwise, the Irish were powered by a defense that allowed 10.3 points per game heading into the BCS Championship.
Two years later, Golson is back as Notre Dame's quarterback and the script is flipped. Instead of setting the tempo of a game with great play on defense, the goal is to dictate games with the offense.
"We feel like we're to the point offensively we can take a little bit more of the game control, if you will," offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said. "We can control the tempo of the game, control the outcome of the game by the way we play offense as opposed to just kind of leaning on our defense and (scoring) one more than they do."
Notre Dame has the solid offensive line and playmakers at running back, tight end and wide receiver (even if DaVaris Daniels misses some or all of the season) to accomplish that goal. But that's been the case in past years -- the difference now is having the right quarterback in place.
Despite missing the entire 2013 season due to an academic suspension, Golson has the confidence of his coaching staff to be unleashed as a playmaker and focal point of the team. That wasn't the case two years ago, when Golson was in his first year running the offense. But he's a smarter, more mature quarterback whose understanding of the game is like "night and day" from where it was in 2012, according to Denbrock.
Combine that knowledge and maturity with a strong arm, good instincts and the ability to make plays with his legs and Golson has what his coaches are looking for in a quarterback.
"He's the cornerstone of the whole deal," Denbrock said. "… He has the keys to the offense. He's the guy who really is the puppet master who's pulling the strings even though coach Kelly's calling the plays."
Notre Dame expects to run its offense faster this fall, with Golson speeding things up to keep opposing defenders on their heels. Golson said going at a faster tempo helps keep base defenses on the field while making it difficult to go to sub packages for blitzing purposes, and he feels more comfortable "getting my Peyton Manning on," as he put it, calling out pre-snap protections and reads.
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Going at a faster tempo should help the Irish offense, but it won't matter if the team's red zone issues persist. In 2012, Notre Dame had the 13th-worst red zone touchdown percentage among FBS teams, finding the end zone from within the 20-yard line only 48 percent of the time. That number didn't get much better in 2013, when Notre Dame's 53 percent red zone touchdown clip ranked 26th worst.
Finding a way to get in the end zone more often from the red zone has been a point of emphasis for years, and Kelly said the team and coaches continue to focus on better planning in that area. Denbrock said he wants the offense to commit to running the ball more in the red zone, but also feels like the right personnel is in place to get the job done.
"I think we have some guys in some spots now that I feel like can make some of the plays that maybe we missed on the last couple years," Denbrock said.
But this all goes back to the quarterback. Tommy Rees knew what Kelly and his coaches wanted, but he didn't have a strong arm or much mobility. Golson has both, and has shown his coaches he has the football acumen to run a successful offense.
"I'm not where I was in 2012," Golson said. "A lot of stuff was new to me, I didn't really know what they wanted in an offense. Now I'm able to understand what they want, coach Kelly, coach Denbrock and those guys."