Oct. 9, 2014 NOTRE DAME, Ind. - It was a two-minute offense that was exactly two minutes, and it was exactly what the University of Notre Dame football team needed.
Stanford's Remound Wright slashed 11 yards for a touchdown that gave the Cardinal a 14-10 lead against Notre Dame in Saturday's top-25 clash at Notre Dame Stadium. With 3:01 left on the clock, as a bitter wind and rain dropped the temperature to near freezing, Notre Dame's offense ran onto the turf to face the task of driving 65 yards against the nation's No. 1 defense for the go-ahead score.
With 1:01 left on the clock, the Irish were celebrating a stunning 23-yard fourth-down touchdown strike from Everett Golson to Ben Koyack. The touchdown gave Notre Dame a 17-14 lead that the Irish defense would make stand.
"I mean, I think that's big boy time," Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson said. "I think I try to live for moments like that. .... I know people may not realize, but I was kind of happy for the moment. Just facing adversity, having the half we did before and still being in it and having a chance to win it at the end, that was big for me. I just embraced the opportunity."
Notre Dame's heart-thumping two-minute magic produced a special moment in Irish lore, and boosted Notre Dame's record to 5-0. The No. 5-ranked Irish play host to North Carolina (2-3) at 3:30 p.m. EDT Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Last season, Notre Dame pulled off four "two-minute drills" in which the Irish scored. Those successful two-minute offenses all were in the first half.
This season, Notre Dame has embraced the opportunity to already pull off four two-minute drills that have resulted in Irish scores. The Irish could have had a fifth in five games, but a fumble on a snap attempt by Golson just before halftime in the victory against Syracuse stole that opportunity.
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said the two-minute drill is a blend of art and science. Last-minute magic requires creativity and unpredictability, but there are absolute truths when the scoreboard clock turns hostile.
"We certainly have a plan every week of how we're going to attack a team in a two-minute situation, but it's always up to the individual play-caller," Denbrock said. "Coach (Brian) Kelly has a very innovative offensive mind, so there are a lot of times where he'll go off script if he feels like this, that or the other thing will be successful.
"We tell the players that we have a specific set of things we're going to try to accomplish in two minutes, but the call sheet is hot, which means we can go anywhere at any time if we need to, so you better be up to speed on what we're doing."
Corey Robinson, a 6-foot-4, 215 sophomore wide receiver, said the Irish weren't about to let doubt creep onto the field with them on Saturday.
"This team has poise," Robinson said. "Everyone is calm. When Everett says, 'We're going to do this,' when Nick Martin says, 'We're going to go drive and score,' everyone is feeding off their confidence. That confidence transfers to the field. When all 11 guys believe that we're going to go down and score, that's tough to beat."
Koyack agreed the Irish were locked in to the task.
"Everybody was focused and calm," Koyack said. "No one was panicking. We were all like, 'We know what we have to do.' I don't think we ever doubted that we were going to make it there. From the start of that drive, we knew we left some opportunities on the field before, so we were all ready to execute."
Faced with playing against the Cardinal and the clock, the Irish had to stick to critical two-minute truths. Ball security is Job 1. Then, the receiver has to get out of bounds or punch forward to get a first down, since the clock stops on first downs in the college game. Under no circumstances can the quarterback get sacked.
For Notre Dame, the convergence of poise and passion, art and science is embodied in Golson. On the play before his winning pass, Golson ran into an offensive lineman and took a three-yard loss, creating a fourth-and-11 situation. Shaking off the rough play on third down, Golson delivered to bring Irish nation to its feet.
"I think the quarterback's demeanor sets the tone we want," Denbrock said. "The cooler and more in control of himself that the quarterback is, everybody else feeds off of that. He's the guy driving the car. If he's cool and collected, then it must be okay for me to be cool and collected. If he's panicking, then maybe it's time for me to panic. It's difficult to shake off a bad play, but a lot of it is experience. No. 2, a lot of that is Everett's personality.
"Everett is a next-play guy. Not only is that his personality, but it's something that Coach Kelly and the rest of us try to preach to our guys all the time. OK, we didn't get it done, what's next? It's part of the whole `next man in' philosophy. One guy gets injured, the next guy is expected to go in and play well. Well, this play didn't go as well as expected, it's the next play, let's go. The more important aspect is what happens after this play that wasn't as well executed as we wanted it to be. Our guys really play with that mentality, and especially Everett Golson."
Robinson, who had four clutch receptions on Notre Dame's final two drives, said he also embraces the challenge of stepping up to face adversity. "You can't be nervous," Robinson said. "I dropped a ball on the two-minute drive, and I had to let it go. You have to move on. If you say, 'I've got to get this next ball,' and you put a lot of pressure on yourself, you might make a bigger mistake. You can't be rash, you have to be cold and calculated, but at the same time you have to have the passion to want to make the plays."
Koyack said the Irish don't get caught up in how tough the job is that they have to tackle. He said that he put the fourth-and-11, down-to-the-last-chance situation out of his mind before his TD catch.
"I don't know if you mentally grasp how big the situation is until it's over," Koyack said. "Before the play, you're just thinking, go out there, run your route, expect the ball to come to you. If the ball does come to you, make a play. I wasn't even thinking like that was the last play of the game. I'm just thinking, I have to execute this play and be ready if my number is called. I'd say that's the case with every guy on our offense. In the moment, we're just trying to do our jobs."
Although Denbrock and the Irish have schemed for the two-minute offense and prepared every day in practice, the concept of team also stands tall.
"Our guys have confidence in themselves, and they know we're going to have a plan for them, and that if they execute it the right way they're going to move the football," Denbrock said. "Then it gets into a situation where somewhere along the way, in a two-minute situation, if you're going to be successful, somebody steps up and makes a play. Maybe it's unscripted, maybe it's scripted, but somebody has to make a play. Our players understand that. They don't go outside of their responsibilities, but they do understand that if I get the opportunity, I have to make this happen for the guys around me."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent