The senior quarterback scrambled for a 15-yard touchdown just before halftime to erase Notre Dame's first deficit of the season, kept a second-half TD drive going with a 17-yard completion on the run and helped the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish score the final 20 points to pull away from rival Purdue 30-14.
"He just understands the game," coach Brian Kelly said. "The game is slower for him than it was when he was here in his first year. The game has slowed down. He sees the field better. He can see it better. He's not there yet. We missed some things tonight that would have changed the complexion of the game."
No, it wasn't easy for the Irish to get to 3-0 for the second time in three years, the first time Notre Dame has done that since four straight years from 1987-90. And there wasn't much celebrating, either.
Carlisle left in the first quarter with a sprained medical collateral ligament in his right knee and did not return. Safety Max Redfield was ejected in the second quarter after being called for targeting, safety Nicky Baratti re-injured his shoulder on the next play and starting cornerback Cole Luke left later with a neck injury.
So Golson put the burden to do more on his shoulders -- and legs -- and the guy who led the Fighting Irish to the national championship game two seasons ago took control as one of the few offensive players in sync.
Golson finished 25 of 40 for 259 yards with two touchdown passes and ran 18 times for a season-high 56 yards and one touchdown, the nifty scramble that gave Notre Dame the lead for good.
The combination was good enough to send the Shillelagh Trophy back to South Bend, Indiana, for a seventh consecutive year, where it will stay until these teams resume the rivalry in 2020 following a five-year hiatus. The Shamrock Series has been played every year since 1946.
With No. 6 Georgia losing to No. 24 South Carolina earlier Saturday, Notre Dame could crack the Top 10 for the first time this season -- though Kelly isn't convinced his team is playing that well yet.
"We're still not a finished product by any means, we're still such a young team," Kelly said. "At 3-0, we're extremely pleased with where we are, but we know we're nowhere close to where we need to be."
That may partially explain why this game again failed to follow the expected script.
Purdue (1-2), which has traditionally played some of its best football against the Irish, delivered another strong performance exactly one week after a poor showing in a loss to Central Michigan.
Brandon Cottom scored on a 7-yard TD pass in the first quarter to tie the score at 7, and Etling somehow managed to fit in a 19-yard TD pass to Deangelo Yancey, who tip-toed the end line despite drawing a pass interference call, to give the Boilermakers a 14-10 lead with 3 minutes left in the first half.
But against Golson's improv act, it wasn't enough.
"That's where he hurts you," Hazell said. "You watched it the first two weeks against Rice and Michigan. Whether he ran it or whether he found a guy down the field, those play-making capabilities he has can really keep you off-balance."
Purdue hung around until late in the third quarter when Golson avoided the pass rush by sprinting right and found Greg Byrant for a 17-yard completion. Two plays later, Golson hooked up with Corey Robinson for a 15-yard TD pass to make it 24-14. Golson then directed two time-consuming drives in the fourth quarter, both of which ended with field goals, to end any lingering comeback hopes for the Boilermakers.
"I had confidence through it all," Golson said. "For me, never was there a point, and I'm not saying this to be cocky or anything like that, but there never was a point that I thought we were going to lose. That's just because I knew everybody was looking at me and you can't have that mindset or any doubt that you're going to lose."