In a BCS National Championship matchup commanded by dominant defenses, the X-factor could present itself as a redshirt freshman quarterback with a knack for improvising — on the football field and on the keyboards.
“Music is my outlet,” said Notre Dame’s Everett Golson, who plays by ear. “I actually have a keyboard in my room. There are many times where I come from practice or from class and just sit down and play.
“It kind of lets me get away from what’s going on.”
On Monday night against No. 2 Alabama, it will be imperative that Golson is in the moment, even if at times he slip-slides away.
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The young quarterback is known for his scrambling abilities.
His agility and athleticism allow him to keep plays alive as he shuffles around the pocket, his eyes perpetually downfield.
This is top-ranked Notre Dame’s first national-title shot since 1988, and if the top-ranked Fighting Irish (12-0) are to keep 10-point-favorite Alabama (13-1) from solidifying its dynasty, many believe the key will be Golson’s ability to decipher the Crimson Tide’s disguises and break free.
“That’s the ace in the hole,” ESPN college football analyst David Pollack said of Golson’s legs. “That’s the wild card in this ballgame, him being able to buy time.”
Despite some roadblocks, Golson steadily has brought his game to new heights. In 11 outings (he missed the seventh game, against BYU, with a concussion), he completed 166 of 282 passes (58.9 percent) for 2,135 yards and 11 touchdowns, with five interceptions.
He added 305 yards and five touchdowns rushing.
“A quarterback like that … can scramble around for five seconds and create havoc for our defense,” Alabama defensive end Damion Square said.
Hard to predict
Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said he still sees in his mind “three plays we watched over and over — he scrambles to his right, throws it all the way across the field to his left to a wide-open receiver — where a guy just lost him. To that kid’s credit that creates a different angle of the offense that’s hard to prepare for” and “hard to simulate.”
Golson’s aerial attack, which has All-American tight end Tyler Eifert (624 yards receiving and four touchdowns) as its main target, has plagued defenses.
Seven of Golson’s passing touchdowns, and only two interceptions, came during the final five games, beginning with a confidence-boosting 30-13 victory Oct. 27 against then-No. 8 Oklahoma.
This week he indicated the confidence-launcher, however, was on Oct. 6 against Miami at Chicago’s Soldier Field, where Golson completed 17 of 22 passes for 186 yards — and added 51 rushing yards.
Detractors point to Golson’s inexperience and that this is the Tide’s third national championship game in four years — they won the previous two.
They say Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, a junior, has been on the biggest stage before.
“I don’t think he’s going to get nervous,” Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick said of Golson. “He lives for these moments.
“The dude is unbelievable. He makes something out of nothing.”
Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin was asked, regarding Golson, if Monday night’s game could be likened to “the great unknown.”
“Yeah, it is,” Martin said, adding that “they’ll realize pretty quickly it’s like any other game. I’d say the first series isn’t — they’ll realize the enormity of the moment when they go out there. But once those big guys start chasing them around, instincts take over.”
After “the first set of drives,” Martin said, Golson likely won’t be thinking, “this is the national championship.”
Instead, said the coach, his quarterback “will be thinking, ‘I’ve got to find a window to throw the ball’ ” — or maybe a lane in which to run.
Miami Herald sportswriter Cory Nightingale contributed to this report.