Golson has been intermittently solid (Navy, Purdue, Michigan State), destructive (Michigan), and spectacular (Miami). He most recently received his toughest test -- a triggerman under fire vs. a stunting Stanford front seven that harassed him throughout the contest and ultimately knocked him from the game with a penalized hit late in the fourth quarter.
Golson has the quickness and arm strength to beat every defense, but his knowledge of blitz schemes and how a defense attacks hasn't caught up with the physical gifts. The biggest weakness in his game, however, is ball security. Of Notre Dame's eight turnovers this season, Golson has had a hand in 7 (3 INT, 4 fumbles). He's also fumbled on three more occasions when the Irish retained possession.
The Irish can afford one turnover Saturday. More and they stand little chance of recording the road upset.
2 -- Running Back #6 Theo Riddick: The team's leading rusher (451), second-leading receiver (20 receptions), and third-most targeted pass catcher (34), Riddick has emerged as the team's most consistent all-around running back, this after two seasons spent as a slot receiver in head coach Brian Kelly's spread attack.
Riddick authored his best career outing last Saturday vs. Brigham Young, rushing for a career-best 143 yards on 18 carries. One week prior his pair of late receptions (23 yards on 3rd down; 16 yards in overtime) set up both of Notre Dame's touchdown drives in a 20-13 win. At 5'11" 200 pounds, Riddick has evolved into the team's unlikely power 'back -- a true north-south runner blessed rare quickness though not with straight-line speed.
Finally a consistent contributor after two seasons of scratching the surface, Riddick will be instrumental in pass protection, as a receiver, and likely in tandem with his classmate Cierre Wood (below) rushing the football.
3 -- Running Back #20 Cierre Wood: Though Riddick has emerged as the team's workhorse, Wood is doubtless its best natural runner. Quicker than fast, Wood is a nightmare in short space and against solo tacklers at the second level. After missing the first two games of the 2012 season due to internal suspension, Wood has paced a trio of Irish runners with 393 yards over the last five games, including 114 last week vs. Brigham Young, his second time topping 100 in the last three outings.
Wood posted 1,102 rushing yards last season while scoring nine touchdowns. He's not yet received more than 18 carries in a game in 2012. That will likely have to change Saturday night in Norman if the Irish are to emerge victorious over the most athletic defense they've faced to date.
4 -- Wide Receiver #7 T.J. Jones: A starter since his true freshman season of 2010 and generously listed at 5'11" 190, Jones is the second-most targeted receiver (36) on the squad behind All-America tight end Tyler Eifert (37). The junior has been the team's No. 1 chain-mover this season, with 18 of his team-high 21 grabs resulting in Irish first downs or touchdowns. Jones' remarkable sliding touchdown catch of a pass thrown low and behind him (on a slant route, no less) proved to be the winning score in Notre Dame's 20-13 overtime victory vs. Stanford two weeks ago.
At his best on slants, tunnel screens, and comeback routes, Jones' is the team's most undervalued player after the catch -- never breaking for a big gainer but regularly gaining three to five determined yards when none appear possible, and in many instances an extra eight or nine yards after one sharp cut and burst upfield.
If involved early, Jones could lend a crucial fourth weapon (running backs Riddick and Wood plus Eifert) sometimes missing from the offense's attack. The crafty veteran is more likely to beat quality press coverage than is future star DaVaris Daniels, a redshirt-freshman receiver battling inconsistency. (Daniels averages 16.5 yards per catch, second only to Eifert's 16.).
5 -- Right Guard #57 Mike Golic, Jr.: Maligned most of 2012 by Irish fans, Golic and highly touted right tackle Christian Lombard were the line's question mark's entering the season. Golic has taken the brunt of Irish fan scorn after struggling mightily in the home opener vs. Purdue defensive tackles Kawaan Short and Bruce Gaston, then playing an uneven 60 minutes in East Lansing in a prime time battle vs. then-No. 10 Michigan State.
The 5th-year senior however has been a key contributor to the team's rushing attack, excelling as a pulling blocker on the move and improving as a drive-blocker at the point. Golic's pass protection has been spotty, a reality exacerbated by backup quarterback Tommy Rees' lack of mobility last week, and an issue that often forced Golson from the pocket often the previous week against Stanford's stout front.
He's also been whistled for four false starts over the last two weeks, but Kelly was adamant that the issue is more of a shotgun center/QB exchange than repeated errors by Golic.
Golic won't dominate Saturday, but he can't cave-in vs. interior pressure when matched up one-on-one, either.
Tim O'Malley is the publisher of IrishEyes.com.