BYU football: Questions still abound for high-flying Notre Dame

By Eric Hansen

South Bend Tribune

Published: Sunday, Oct. 14 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

In this Oct. 6, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center left, talks to his team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Miami at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Charles Rex Arbogast, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The biggest question has turned into the biggest surprise. And not the icky kind.

Notre Dame’s unexpected presence in the top five of the first BCS standings of the 2012 season, at No. 5, is undoubtedly driven by its defensive front seven and supplemented by a quarterback time-share arrangement that’s so quirky and unpredictable that it works.

But it could have all been undone by a rebuilding secondary that continues to confound all logic and ND fans’ worst fears.

At the halfway point of the season, the Irish are ranked No. 5 in pass-efficiency defense, the true measure of how easy or difficult it is to move the ball through the air on a given team. Last year ND, with standout safety Harrison Smith and three other multiple-year starters, ranked 58th in that category.

The front seven deserves some of the credit. The Irish have amassed 15 sacks and 26 quarterback hurries, the latter number on school-record pace (though the stat wasn’t charted in earnest until 2004).

But safety Zeke Motta and three converted offensive players have done their part too. Junior cornerback Bennett Jackson, in fact, finds himself fourth in the nation in interceptions this week (four in six games).

There are still plenty of other questions, though, about Notre Dame (6-0) as it rolls into the second half of the season Saturday against BYU (4-3). Here’s a look at the most intriguing of them and a shot at the answers:

Will Irish coach Brian Kelly change Notre Dame’s quarterback dynamic this week in light of another strong relief appearance by junior Tommy Rees?

Not if sophomore Everett Golson is healthy.

Kelly revealed Sunday that Golson did suffer a concussion on helmet-to-helmet contact Saturday with 3:24 left in regulation in Notre Dame’s 20-13 overtime win over Stanford, but that his No. 1 option is expected back in practice early in the week.

“He's going through the steps, the protocol that we have,” Kelly said. “He was still a bit symptomatic today, so he'll go through his cognitive testing (Monday), and we expect that if all things move in this direction that he should be cleared by Tuesday.”

Golson also has been playing through a turf toe injury he sustained in the second quarter of the Miami game on Oct. 6.

Kelly’s faith in Golson is based upon the sometimes obscured baby steps the sophomore is taking and the high ceiling he projects for him once he grows into the offense.

BYU presents another team that will test just how far along the growth curve Golson is. The Cougars and USC are the only teams left on the Irish schedule that, like Stanford last week, stuff the run, bring pressure against the pass and dare your quarterback to take shots down the field to make them pay for their gambling up front.

Oregon State, with the nation’s eighth-best passing offense, is the perfect antidote for what BYU likes to do defensively, and the Beavers thumped the Cougars in Provo, Utah, 42-24. Notre Dame, when it struggles to pass effectively, creates a feeding frenzy for what BYU likes to do defensively.

You have to run the ball into an overloaded box, which tends to put you in third-and-medium or long, which brings on even more pressure. “That's still our Achilles heel,” Kelly said. “We have to throw the football better.”

And sometimes that means getting Rees involved late, though Saturday’s relief appearance was evoked by injury, not Kelly’s trepidation that Golson couldn’t finish.

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