NORMAN, Okla. – Brian Kelly folded his arms across his chest and shook his head in disgust at a promising Notre Dame drive that stalled out in the red zone.
His young quarterback, Everett Golson, had just planted a third-down throw in the grass a few feet too far away for second-team All-American Tyler Eifert to dive and catch it on the 13th play of a series that had lasted nearly 7 minutes.
All that work would end up with no payoff when Kyle Brindza missed wide left on a 35-yard field goal attempt, but it could pay dividends down the road when it comes to Golson's growth.
As his quarterback came to the sideline, Kelly put one arm on either side of Golson's waist and drove home a point: When you have a talented 6-foot-5 tight end, put the ball up high where he has an advantage on defenders, not down on the ground.
"Every single play, there's something out there that needs to be communicated and it's very important that I got it across to him because later it ended up being a big play for us," Kelly said, referring to a pass Golson delivered high for a leaping 22-yard catch on the next drive by 6-foot-2 DaVaris Daniels.
"When you're dealing with a young quarterback, you have to take those moments. I can't control that kick at that point, so it was important that I got my point across at that time and not wait."
Golson, who because of injury or ineffective play was unable to complete three games in the first half of the season, is starting to show signs of maturing into the type of leader the Fighting Irish (8-0) will need to stay in the national championship picture for the final month of the season.
Following a 30-13 win at then-No. 8 Oklahoma, the Irish moved up to No. 4 in The Associated Press poll on Sunday. They return home to face Pittsburgh (4-4) next Saturday.
Before Saturday night, much of Notre Dame's ascent had been built around a three-headed power running attack and the nation's second-stingiest defense, led by Heisman Trophy hopeful Manti Te'o at linebacker. But against the Sooners, Kelly said it was "the first time that we showed that we could be on our own a little bit offensively and put some points on the board."
"If we continue to go that way, it's going to give us an offense that's going to be difficult to defend because we'll have great balance," Kelly said Sunday. "That's what we're trying to get with Everett in there: Not an offense that throws it 50 times nor an offense that runs it 50 times, one that's balanced and difficult to defend."
That's exactly what the Irish got in their most difficult test of the season so far, while stuffing Oklahoma's run game and turning the Sooners — who were fifth in the nation in scoring — into a one-dimensional attack that could only complete short passes.
The Irish held a 215-15 advantage on the ground, with Golson contributing 64 yards rushing to go with his 177 through the air.
After missing the previous week's win against BYU because of a concussion, Golson said he got a different perspective from the sideline and came back with changes in mind. Chief among them: "Just the relationship with the other players, the other 10 guys on the offense," Golson said. "I definitely just wanted to improve in that."
"It had a tremendous effect, just seeing it outside of me actually being out there really helped me," Golson added. "Just kind of seeing it from the sideline perspective. It made me realize a couple things that we needed to work on."
Kelly said he thinks Golson's week off allowed him to see that he had been a less assertive leader than backup Tommy Rees, who won two games in relief of Golson plus the BYU game. He's also shown more willingness lately to accept coaching to change the fundamentals of his drop-back and in return let the coaches know what plays he's most comfortable running.
"I just think he's beginning to realize those detail things we've been banging him on the head with will actually make him a better quarterback," Kelly said. "I think by getting a chance to step back and see it, and watching it, I think he realized more and more how important it is to be disciplined in those areas.
"Then I think he just flat out made a decision that 'I know this coaching is going to help me and I'm going to take it to heart.'"
Golson also showed some toughness when he scrambled on the next-to-last play of the third quarter and got flattened by Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson. He was able to walk off after staying down on the field for a few moments, but he returned as soon as possible to finish the game off.
"He got hit pretty hard on one play and came back in. He sat out the one play because you have to and then came back and led the offense back down the field," receiver T.J. Jones said. "He's starting to mature as a quarterback and a leader as well."
Tom Coyne contributed to this report from South Bend, Ind.