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Golson’s return means Rees will sit at start

SOUTH BEND IN - SEPTEMBER 08:  Everett Gols#5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs around end try score touchdwagainst Purdue

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 08: Everett Golson #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs around end to try to score a touchdwon against the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Updated: December 23, 2012 1:26AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It was only a month ago that Everett Golson, under the lights on national TV against a high-profile opponent, melted down and had by far the worst game of his brief college career — tossing two interceptions against Michigan and getting benched in the second quarter.

And that was at home.

Tommy Rees, the Lake Forest High School graduate and the ultimate backup QB who has delivered every time when called upon tis season, finished that game, leading the Irish to victory.

Still, Rees, who led last week’s win over BYU while Golson sat out with an injury, will be back on the bench this Saturday night in the biggest game of the year.

Golson never has faced anything like he’s going to face Saturday night at Oklahoma’s Memorial Stadium. Not at Notre Dame Stadium, not at Michigan State, not at Soldier Field.

“The fans are right on top of you,” recalled Irish coach Brian Kelly, whose Cincinnati Bearcats lost 52-26 in Norman in 2008. “They’re very knowledgeable. It’s just a good college environment, and they’re a really good football team.”

But how does Kelly know if Golson — who admitted that the pressure got to him against Michigan — is mentally ready to play before 82,000 Oklahoma fans?

“It’s bits and pieces throughout the entire year,” Kelly said. “At Michigan State in a very hostile environment, and then in big-game situations where we’re playing on the road in Chicago. It’s just a cumulative effect. In other words, all the pieces that come together for him to make him a better quarterback than he was earlier in the year, is his experience. And we think he’ll build on that and should not have any problem playing in a big environment at Oklahoma because he’s already done it.”

One thing that should allay the concerns of Golson and Notre Dame fans is that Kelly again likely won’t ask much of him, other than to protect the football and make smart, safe decisions. In the last two games, the Irish have established their identity as a running team, racking up 420 yards on the ground against two elite rush defenses.

And they only got stronger as the game wore on.

“If you have a running game behind you that you can rely on when things get tough, I think all quarterbacks love that opportunity,” Kelly said. “It makes it easier for them to be more successful throwing the football. I think the big key for him is he knows going in that he doesn’t have to do it himself.”

It doesn’t hurt that the fifth-ranked Irish have rallied for the last two wins after never having trailed through the first five games of the season.

“I just feel we have a whole new level of confidence,” said Theo Riddick, who ran for 143 yards on only 15 carries against BYU. “No one puts their head down or anything.”

That — as much as the elite defense, as much as the ground-and-pound offense — seems to separate this Notre Dame team from recent, lesser vintages. The Brian Kelly era started out with a 2-5 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Since last season’s midyear resurgence, the Irish are 7-1 in such games, 4-0 this year.

So even if Golson, with a mere six career games under his belt, doesn’t yet have that swagger and that mental toughness, the team around him certainly does. Thus far, that has been good enough.

“It goes to the toughness of our football team — there’s no question they believe they are going to win,” Kelly said. “And if there’s any questions out there, that’s been eradicated over the last couple of weeks.”

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