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Golson, Irish defense grow up in win

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Let’s begin with The Moment because Everett Golson -- after a wet, windy, mostly maddening day -- deserves that much.

If Golson goes on to win the Heisman Trophy or Notre Dame goes on to reach the College Football Playoff or both, the seminal moment could be a 23-yard touchdown strike from Golson to tight end Ben Koyack on fourth-and-11 against the nation’s No. 1 defense. Golson evaded the Stanford rush and found Koyack inexplicably alone in the northwest corner of the end zone for the score with 1:01 remaining.

Forget Golson’s two turnovers earlier in the day. Forget that Stanford coach David Shaw, when asked to describe the coverage on the doomed play, simply responded, “There was no coverage.” When it mattered most, Golson delivered, lifted Notre Dame to a 17-14 win and improved his record as the Irish starter to 15-1, the highest win percentage for a quarterback in team history.

"The kid's a winner," coach Brian Kelly said.

"That's big-boy time," Golson said.

This was a big-boy game in nasty conditions. Before kickoff, the press box announcer said there was a "wall of water" over South Bend with another wall behind it. The game’s longest play turned out to be a 39-yard return after a botched Notre Dame field-goal attempt.

While Golson played hero, the Irish won the big-boy game by playing man ball on defense, and a unit with glaring questions entering the season is growing up right before our eyes.

Koyack's touchdown catch occurred in the same end zone where Notre Dame stuffed Stanford in overtime two years ago. But the Irish defense has gone through several facelifts since then.

Notre Dame lost six defensive starters from 2013 to graduation. Another returning starter, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, has been suspended in the university’s investigation into possible academic fraud. Lineman Ishaq Williams, also among the suspended players, had been pegged to start.

And yet here they were, holding Stanford’s once-feared power offense to 3.0 yards per play -- its lowest average since 2006 -- and 1.5 yards per rush. Stanford finished with 47 rush yards and converted just two of its first 13 attempts on third down. Two Notre Dame sophomores -- linebacker Jaylon Smith (14 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and cornerback Cole Luke (two interceptions, forced fumble, sack) -- led the defensive charge, but many others contributed.

"It's all about now," Luke said. "We can't get 'em back, we can't play with one player down or anything, so it's all about how you step up."

And whom Notre Dame stepped up against, a Stanford offense that provides a "measuring stick," according to linebacker Joe Schmidt.

"It's great for our confidence," Schmidt said. "Any time you want to get in 22, 23 personnel and you want to run the ball, it's going to be fun for us and, hopefully, very few yards for you."

Stanford's offense came in struggling, particularly in the red zone, but it still brought the beef up front and the objective to overpower its opponent. But Notre Dame subdued the Cardinal, who failed to hit the 50-yard rushing mark for the first time since Oct. 27, 2007, under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.

"Our quarterback got hit a lot today," Shaw said. "Counting for the guys they lost, they did an outstanding scheme on the defensive side, and their guys played hard. They played fast. And you can tell they're very well-coached."

First-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has Notre Dame’s defense playing near 2012 levels, despite the new faces. VanGorder’s plethora of pressure proved too much for Stanford’s retooled line, and quarterback Kevin Hogan spent much of the game on the run.

Fittingly, the game ended with a harried Hogan intentionally grounding the ball, which resulted in a 10-second runoff. Stanford’s once-promising playoff hopes are likely dashed.

"Grin and bear it, I guess," running back Remound Wright said. "It is what it is."

By all accounts, Notre Dame’s defense shouldn’t be here, bullying the bully with a bunch of underclassmen. Or perhaps it should. Maybe it’s all part of Kelly’s master plan.

"We should be here in five years," Kelly said. "Year 1, we got knocked around. I mean, physically."

Notre Dame allowed 37 points, 166 rush yards and 25 first downs to Stanford in 2010, Kelly’s first year.

"This is where you should be going into Year 5 of your program," Kelly repeated. "Even though you lose [Stephon] Tuitt and you lose [Louis] Nix and you lose [Prince] Shembo and you lose [Dan] Fox and [Bennett] Jackson, all these guys playing on NFL teams, you bring in the next batch of guys, and they’re physically able to compete with one of the more physical teams in college football."

Maybe Notre Dame is right on schedule, ready for another run at a championship. On a weekend when most of the top-5 lost, the No. 9 Irish found a way to maintain their perfect record.

They needed their quarterback to deliver. And he needed his defense to give him a chance to deliver.

"Holding those guys to 14 points, it’s pretty hard," said Golson, who has surpassed his touchdown pass total (now 13) from 2012 (12). “We didn’t always capitalize on the things we should have, when they gave us the ball and great field position. "I definitely felt like I owed it to them."

Notre Dame still needs work. Golson has six turnovers in his past two games. The offensive line play is spotty.

If Stanford had won, many would point to Notre Dame’s two botched field-goal attempts, and the trials of holder Hunter Smith.

"We found a revolutionary idea that will probably be now the biggest thing in college football,” Kelly said. “We're going to put gloves on the holder. That seemed to be the way to accomplish greatness in this game. Unbelievable."

Fortunately for Kelly, Notre Dame fans were shouting the same word after the game, but for different reasons. Their perfect season continues. So does Golson’s comeback story.

The Florida State showdown is two weeks away.

"There's nobody walking around feeling like we can't win every game we play," Kelly said.

Especially the Irish defenders.