An imperfect quarterback seeks perfection

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Everett Golson's last trip to the Sunshine State was unique, to be sure. The bells and whistles of the BCS title game presented their own set of distractions. Alabama's defense was unforgiving. There was, of course, the final score, a 42-14 humbling of then-No. 1 Notre Dame.

And then there was the aftermath, an unfamiliar feeling whose imprint remains, frankly, unknown: Golson had lost a football game that he took the first snap in -- a blemish that, given its distinction, has seemingly taken on added significance with each passing win.

Golson brings a 16-1 career record as a starter into Florida State this Saturday. That outlier is what, in many ways, sets him apart from the man likely to be under center on the other side of things, 19-0 Jameis Winston. No active FBS quarterback with at least 10 starts can touch the winning percentages of Golson (.941) and Winston (1.000), who has a national title to his name.

Golson exited Miami nearly two years ago and, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, would not play a football game again for 600 more days, thanks to an academic suspension imposed nearly five months later. The shame of discipline overshadowed the only real on-field black mark of his career. Given his inward nature while on public display, it is no easy task untangling whatever resentment has stuck with Golson from Jan. 7, 2013.

One of the first people outside of the Irish locker room to see Golson in wake of the defeat was Hugh T. Wallace, a former assistant principal at Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) High who has served as a mentor to the signal-caller since his days as a prepster. Wallace had driven down to Miami and back, there to pick Golson up from the airport at home a day after the loss to the Crimson Tide.

Little was gleaned.

"He wanders out of the terminal with his little backpack, gets in the (car) like nothing has ever happened, and he asks me, 'Did you see the game?' " Wallace recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, I watched it on television in a bar outside the lobby.' And I said, 'Didn't anybody say anything to you after the game?' He said no. I said, 'You played good, your team just got beat. Too much speed.'

"He keeps that wanting-to-play pretty internal. Every now and then he'll say, 'I'm competitive.' But almost all of that stuff he really internalizes. He's very quiet, self-determined. If he talks, it's about music. He doesn't say a lot about football. He's not your swaggering jock."

On a team that was outplayed and overwhelmed that night, Golson was solid, though not spectacular. Spotted a three-touchdown hole three Tide drives into the game, Golson finished with 21 of 36 for 270 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He added another score on the ground.

Head coach Brian Kelly quipped before this season that Golson "rode the bus" to the title game during that 2012 campaign, a comment borne out of coachspeak and one in deference to a defense that was loaded with future pros. But Golson had taken on much greater responsibility down the stretch then, leading a late comeback against Pitt and executing the game plan to a T at rival USC. He has taken almost all of the responsibility now, for better and for worse.

He remains on practically every Heisman short list, but he has turned the ball over nine times over the past three games, with the Irish surviving the last two by the skin of their teeth -- and, of course, because of late plays from their quarterback.

"I'm going to do a better job, for sure," Golson said. "I come in here every week for the last couple of weeks saying I have to do a better job. Right now, it's time for me to stop saying that and time for me to put my words into action and actually do that."

Kelly said this week he is more concerned with "self-inflicted wounds" than he is with the chaos a hostile environment in Tallahassee will present. He did not mention his quarterback -- or anyone, for that matter -- but he no longer needs to.

"Just it goes back to me," Golson said after his last win. "I just got to prepare. I think the game is big, but this week is going to be big in how we prepare and how we kind of take care of our business."

For Golson, that means winning football games. Business has been good. Only one person is doing better. Golson gets a chance to change that in the only state he has left unfulfilled.