The poised play of Everett Golson has Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly pleased with the sophomore quarterback's development.
No quarterback in the country has had to manage expectations the way Stanford's Josh Nunes has had to this season succeeding the NFL's No. 1 overall pick.
While 17th-ranked Stanford has beaten No. 7 Notre Dame the last three seasons, Saturday's matchup appears to be a more difficult trip to South Bend with the Fighting Irish 5-0 for the first time since 2002.
Notre Dame reached that mark last Saturday with a 41-3 rout of Miami at Soldier Field. Golson was 17 of 22 for 186 yards and ran for another 51, the Irish's 587 yards of offense were a season high and their 376 yards rushing were their most since Nov. 11, 2000.
Golson's numbers won't set any records, but backed by Notre Dame's incredibly stingy defense, he doesn't need to. Kelly said Golson "grew up" before the sellout crowd in Chicago.
His coming of age comes at just the right time, with Stanford (4-1) up next.
"You're always concerned when you have a younger quarterback that he's going to be able to pick up a lot of things that a team like Stanford likes to do defensively," Kelly said.
"They're an aggressive defense, they bring a lot of looks. But I will say this: He did a lot of things in the second half that he had not done all year. He recognized pressure, did not run out of the pocket, stayed in there and delivered some balls on time. If that continues to show itself, he's going to be very, very difficult to defend because he's got that confidence level and a strong arm that he can deliver the ball."
Kelly said Golson is feeling more confident and he thinks his performance against Miami will be a "great step forward."
"We'll just take it one step at a time with Everett," Kelly said. "We're not ready to feel like we're anywhere near the finished product, but a game like this will certainly buoy his confidence and ability to really focus in on the details of practice."
Nunes will certainly need to focus Saturday. No team in the country has allowed fewer touchdowns than Notre Dame (three), and the Irish are the only team in the nation that has yet to trail in a game.
In the last three weeks alone, the redshirt junior outplayed Heisman Trophy hopeful Matt Barkley to upset Southern California, shouldered the blame of a stunning loss at Washington and rallied Stanford from a two-touchdown deficit for a thrilling 54-48 overtime win against Arizona that quieted questions about Andrew Luck's successor.
"It's not that we learned," coach David Shaw said. "It's maybe that other people learned he's a tough kid. He bounces back, he doesn't listen to the noise. He's steady."
Fair or not, Stanford's streakiness this season has been tied directly to its new quarterback.
Nunes overcame a pair of first-half interceptions to throw for 215 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-14 win against USC, including a 37-yard strike to tight end Zach Ertz for the winning score, vaulting the Cardinal to as high as No. 8 in the poll.
He followed that by completing 18 of 37 passes for 170 yards and an interception in a 17-13 loss at Washington, often underthrowing receivers on short routes or misfiring completely. The offense converted 5 of 18 third downs, never scored a touchdown and looked lost for the first time since Luck left.
Fans and media began to criticize Nunes enough for Shaw to open his weekly news conference defending his quarterback. Nunes rewarded his coach's loyalty with his best performance yet, throwing for 360 yards and two touchdowns and running for 33 yards and three more scores against Arizona last Saturday.
"I definitely have confidence now," Nunes said. "The guys up front did what they needed to do as well as the guys downfield. I definitely used last week (at Washington) as a stepping stone forward and learned a lot of things to work on. I feel like I did a better job this week, but there are a lot more things we need to correct."
Asked if Nunes' turnaround performance against the Wildcats will do enough to quiet critics before Notre Dame, Shaw shook his head and smiled.
"Probably not," he said. "And once again, I don't care. He doesn't care. We're a team. We're tight in our locker room. We support him through everything, and he understands that. We hold him accountable for what his job is. But at the same time, we know he's more than capable. And I think he showed that."
Shaw's team will likely be without wide receiver Ty Mongtomery due to a lower body injury. Montgomery, who has caught 18 passes for 168 yards, was injured during Stanford's victory over Arizona last weekend.
Stanford had lost seven straight at Notre Dame Stadium before a 37-14 win there in 2010.