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Chase Claypool: From Canada to Notre Dame, from special teams to select company

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Brian Kelly was talking about Notre Dame as a whole, not Chase Claypool specifically, when he said the Irish had changed mentalities since the embarrassing loss at Michigan to end October. But the former includes the latter, and Kelly’s point most certainly has applied to Claypool in November.

“They learned that it’s not just about preparation,” Kelly said this past Saturday after the third Irish win since falling at Ann Arbor. “You can work as hard as you want, but you have to flip the switch. They didn’t at Michigan, and they learned how to do that in that game, that you have to flip the switch.”

After catching just two passes for 42 yards against the Wolverines, closing a three-game stretch in which he totaled seven catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns, Claypool has flipped his own switch.

Eight catches for 118 yards against Virginia Tech.
Five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown at Duke.
Seven catches for 117 yards and a school record-tying four touchdowns against Navy.

In some respects, those numbers don’t encapsulate Claypool’s whole effect. His toe-tapping snag drive on the sideline against Virginia Tech in the closing minutes led to a crucial first down en route to the game-winning touchdown.

His twisting grab in the corner of the end zone against Navy put his name atop Irish record books and put a bow on an offensive explosion.

These moments do not surprise his teammates, who have watched Claypool dominate practice since March.

“It’s starting to show on Saturdays because of how hard he’s working during the week in practice,” said senior quarterback Ian Book, the single-greatest beneficiary of Claypool’s play. “He’s taking the next step Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday in practice. …

“He’s someone that all the receivers look to. He’s someone our whole offense looks to be a leader, and he’s doing that and he’s showing that with his play, as well.”

On an offense that has been marked by its inconsistencies this season, Claypool has been its sole constant. He has at least two catches and 30 yards in every game, a modest statement but still one no one else on the roster can claim. He has 20 more receptions than the next most-prolific and has more yards and touchdowns than fifth-year receiver Chris Finke and junior tight end Cole Kmet combined.

Want to give a Notre Dame fan a shudder? Offer them a prompt not suggested to Kelly or Book, for obvious reasons — What would this Irish offense look like without Claypool?

Notre Dame would have had to find out if a friend of former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock had not tipped him off to an athletic freak in British Columbia. Even that was hardly enough. The competition in Claypool’s highlight footage was so clearly overmatched, Kelly needed to fly to the western reaches of Canada just to get an accurate assessment of the physical prospect in a basketball game. To add some drama to this tale, engine failure forced Kelly’s flight to land in Oregon, well short of Abbotsford, British Columbia, delaying him for a day.

“Then when I watched the basketball (competition), that didn’t do much for me, either,” Kelly can joke now. But he had seen enough to recognize the clear potential in Claypool’s 6-foot-4 frame.

“He’s a guy that is difficult to defend because he can catch on drive routes and score a touchdown,” Kelly said. “He can catch a ball on the sideline. He can catch a vertical route in the seam, a fade. He’s virtually a guy that has all of the weapons.”

Kelly’s catch-all at the end includes Claypool’s special teams exploits, highlighted by 11 tackles as a freshman and a punt fumble recovery at Georgia as a senior, with a controversial non-recovery in the Cotton Bowl between them.

Those 11 tackles back in 2016 clearly showed Claypool’s athleticism, but it took until last November for him to show that consistently on offense. His eight catches for 130 yards at Northwestern stood out as a breakthrough — still do, as a matter of fact, as the display when this space stopped criticizing his sometimes-relaxed approach as it shifted into an aggressive attitude.

Beginning with that, Claypool caught 20 passes for 313 yards and a touchdown last November, numbers that pale to his current month (20 catches for 332 yards and five scores in three games with two to go). It took skepticism, a worrisome flight and three years, but Claypool had proven and continues to prove that Canadian connection correct.

“I think last year was a maturation process for him in terms of him and Ian being on the same page,” Kelly said. “… I think Chase was finding himself as a receiver.”

Again, Claypool embodies the overall Irish trend. Neither he nor they will go down as the best all-time, but each has a chance to end up remembered as one of few. Notre Dame has won 10-plus games in three consecutive seasons only once before (1991-93), and that looks more and more likely this year.

Claypool will not join as select of company if he can break 1,000 yards this season, but the names he would join with 232 more yards (77.4 yards per game, including the bowl) are of an elite nature. Only eight previous Irish receivers have cracked the thousand: Jack Snow (1964), Thom Gatewood (1970), Jeff Samardzija (2005, 2006), Maurice Stovall (2005), Golden Tate (2008, 2009), Michael Floyd (2010, 2011), TJ Jones (2013) and Will Fuller (2014, 2015).

Even beyond that round number, with one more touchdown catch, he will be only the seventh Notre Dame receiver to reach double digits in one season (Derrick Mayes, Samardzija, Stovall, Tate, Floyd, Fuller).

Those are names and numbers befitting a senior Kelly described as a “warrior” two weeks ago. It is a standing Claypool has earned, no matter how you phrase it, be it maturation, flipping a switch or simply development. Whatever that vague means of progress may have been, Claypool has personified it in every respect for a flawed Irish offense undergoing its own growth.

 

And In That Corner … The Boston College Eagles and their hopes to run through Notre Dame

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The college football season is long, maybe not long enough for its fans, but long, nonetheless. By late November, a 5-5 season highlighted by a plodding, but effective, run game can feel even longer. With plenty to worry about as A.J. Dillon presumably finishes up his collegiate career, as Steve Addazio tries to save his job, as Boston College reaches for bowl eligibility, Julian Benbow of The Boston Globe had little reason to take the time to to preview this weekend’s matchup with Notre Dame (2:30 ET; NBC).

Yet he did just that. Much appreciated, Julian.

DF: Boston College has had a yo-yo of a season, winning two games in a row only once. That season-opening momentum came to an abrupt halt in a blowout loss at home to Kansas. (Kansas at home?!?!) Before getting into that head-scratcher, let’s focus on the headline and the Eagles’ sole consistent factor. Junior A.J. Dillon is averaging 145.1 rushing yards per game this year. Remove struggling against Clemson (only natural), and he has averaged 172.6 yards across the last seven games. Boston College does not necessarily have a strong offensive line and it has no passing game. How has Dillon maintained this production rate?

JB: Honestly, it’s pretty fascinating seeing Dillon just hammer away at defenses. You would think that there would be a breaking point after running into stacked boxes almost 20 times. Dillon looks at it the other way around, though. He’s not running into them, they’re running into him. The bet is that as the game wears on, defenders get sick of taking hits from him. He runs north-south, takes small yards as wins and waits for the big payoff. For every big run he’s broken the past few weeks, there are a handful of carries where he had to grind out yards just to keep drives alive. He takes more pride in those runs and considers them as a sign of dependability.

Boston College’s mediocrity has largely robbed junior running back A.J. Dillon of the appropriate accolades. With 4,148 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns in less than three seasons, he has been among college football’s best the last few years. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Does Dillon ever talk about Notre Dame? Or has he this week? Irish fans lament him as a missed recruiting opportunity, hand-wringing compounded by a current lack of pure talent at the position in South Bend. The grandson of a Notre Dame legend, Thom Gatewood, Dillon was not necessarily pursued as aggressively as he could have been by the Irish.

The first time we talked about Notre Dame was two years ago when Dillon was a freshman. He’s very close to his grandfather and their relationship had a huge impact on how he approaches the game. When Dillon made his official visit to South Bend, Gatewood went with him.

There were several factors that went into the decision. He saw the legacy his grandfather carved out at Notre Dame and wanted the same thing — but he wanted it closer to home. He fractured his fibula during his senior year. Being close to family during a tough time gave him some perspective. At the same time, he knew going to Boston College would give him a chance to make an immediate impact, which is what ended up happening.

Can I safely assume Dillon will be heading to the NFL after this season? As a college football fan, it’s disappointing, but it would be the prudent move.

Dillon hasn’t said anything, but it certainly looks that way. He isn’t super high in a lot of the draft rankings, generally projected as a mid- to late-round pick. There’s a recent trend on the defensive side of the ball of players returning for their senior season to improve their draft stock (Harold Landry and Zach Allen). The last Eagles skill position player (not including tight ends) to be drafted in the past 10 years was Matt Ryan, and he was a four-year player. Dillon has a decision to make but jumping to the league seems logical.

Dillon has not had to carry the load alone this year thanks to sophomore running back David Bailey. Not many backup running backs average 98.2 yards per game, as Bailey has the last six weeks (again excluding Clemson). Is there a complementary aspect to him that makes him a fit with Dillon, or is it just more physical pounding after Dillon’s initial successes?

There’s definitely some hammer-and-anvil to Dillon and Bailey. They call themselves the “Buffalo Boys” because they’re huge and they stampede through defenses. Steve Addazio doesn’t look at them as redundant weapons. Having two backs that hover around 250 pounds doesn’t give defenders a break. There have been plenty of times when Dillon’s opened a drive with carries that go for 3, 5 or 6 yards, softening up the defense for Bailey to break off a long run. It’s the style of football that Addazio wants to play, so he keeps the cupboard full of big, physical backs.

The Eagles have desperately needed the duo since junior quarterback Anthony Brown was lost for the season with a knee injury. Sophomore Dennis Grosel has been middling in his relief. What does he bring to the table that Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea might worry about, if anything?

When you hear the word “intangible,” it is reasonable to be skeptical, but Grosel has leadership qualities that earned him a lot of respect in the locker room. He doesn’t rattle. He’s poised on the field and at the podium. He also has a knack for making plays on third down, if not through the air then with his legs. The numbers haven’t been amazing, but he won’t single-handedly lose the Eagles a game. 

As I look through Boston College’s defensive stats, nothing strikes me as impressive. Maybe that’s too blunt, but that’s what comes with giving up 32.1 points per game. Am I missing something?

Nope. It’s bad. It’s the worst in the Addazio era and the third-worst in Eagles history in terms of total yards allowed. Addazio knew it would be bad before the season started because losing eight starters is never a good thing, but I don’t think he imagined it being this bad. At the start of the season, he described the defense as “bend don’t break,” which is a kiss of death. Stopping the run has been impossible and miscommunication in the secondary has been way too frequent.

Now in his eighth year at Boston College, Steve Addazio has never won more than seven games with the Eagles. At 5-5 currently, it is unlikely he breaks that barrier this season. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Jumping to the aforementioned Kansas debacle … The Eagles gave up 567 yards to the Jayhawks. Not to gloss over how calamitous that was, or perhaps not to exaggerate its effects, but to me it underscores how disappointing this 5-5 season has been in Chestnut Hill. With Dillon on hand to power the offense for one last year, more was expected, right?

That’s an interesting one, only because the way the 2018 season ended was so deflating. Boston College beat a ranked team (Miami) for the first time since 2014, hosted College GameDay and was sitting at 7-2 going into Clemson. A nine-win season seemed realistic, then they lost their last three games of the season and went to Dallas for a bowl game that didn’t happen (weather). Last year was supposed to be the year. The way that crumbled kind of muted the expectations for this season. Still, sitting at 5-5 and staring down the very real possibility of another seven-win season is disappointing. The inevitable question is whether that’s just the ceiling for Addazio. 

Speaking of inevitable, at 5-5 and with 5-7 more likely than 6-6, is Steve Addazio on the hot seat? He is exactly 43-43 in seven years at Boston College, not once winning more than seven games. Eagles athletic director Martin Jarmond did not hire Addazio, never a step toward a struggling coach keeping his job.

Addazio’s perpetually on the hot seat — at least when those annual lists pop up. How you judge the job Addazio’s done depends on how you feel about five seven-win seasons and five trips to bowl games for Boston College and that, in turn, says a lot about where you see BC’s standing in the ACC. It’s been a long time since the Matt Ryan days when they were the conference’s shiny new satellite in the Northeast. Cracking that top tier is tough.  

And yes, I’ll have to insist on a prediction. Notre Dame is favored by 19.5. Do you expect Saturday to be that lopsided?

I’ve got Notre Dame and it could get lopsided because when the Eagles lose, they lose big. Going on the road, on a big stage against a ranked team in a rivalry game could get ugly. 

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: The Fiesta-Peach Anomaly in a top-heavy year

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Most years, going 10-2 will be enough to land Notre Dame in a New Year’s Six bowl. The prevailing angst about this perceived slight stems from an anomaly in the Playoff semifinal rotation, not from an agenda against the Irish or from an oversight in the ACC agreement.

Half the New Year’s Six bowls have conference contracts while the remaining three pull from the rest of the top 12 when not hosting semifinals. The 2019 anomaly, one that will next appear in 2022, is that both the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl are hosting semifinals, leaving only one true at-large opening available, guaranteed to face the highest-ranked Group of Five team.

This issue will arise exactly once every three years in the current system. The rest of the time, going 10-2 should assure the Irish a spot in Dallas or Phoenix or Atlanta. For that matter, if the SEC were not so vastly superior to the Big Ten this season, Notre Dame could be heading to the Citrus Bowl rather than the Camping World Bowl, as is almost certainly the case in 2019.

The committee is not jobbing the Irish; the partial membership with the ACC is not failing its intentions; Notre Dame should not turn down a bowl game because it is heading to Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28. This is simply a reality of that Fiesta-Peach turn in the rotation.

If anything, maybe this complication should have been foreseen when setting up the cycle. Pairing a conference-contracted bowl with a free agent bowl as the semifinal sites each year would have been possible, and it could have been done while keeping one game in the Eastern time zone and one in the Central or Pacific each year.


This is where the intention was to illustrate the anomaly by plotting bowl matchups across the last two years of New Year’s Six bowls with those respective semifinal sites factored in. Instead, doing so reliant on a chalk-filled final three weeks to the season brought to the surface another reason the Irish will not come near sniffing those headlines.

This college football season is more top-heavy than usual. Not only are three teams undefeated and likely to remain so — that was supposed to be a 2018 abnormality, there had been only three undefeated teams to reach the first four Playoffs combined — but even with that becoming at least a two-year possibility, the real shift in 2019 is how many Power Five teams will finish with no more than two losses.

2014: One undefeated team after the regular season; 8 total with two or fewer losses.
2015: One undefeated team; 12 with no more than two losses.
2016: One undefeated team; 7 with no more than two losses.
2017: No undefeated Power Five teams; 10 with no more than two losses.
2018: Three undefeated Power Five teams; 8 with no more than two losses.
2019: Three projected undefeated teams; 13 projected teams with no more than two losses.

That last number breaking 11 changes this argument. If that becomes the usual, then a 10-2 Notre Dame will need better wins than No. 23 USC to bolster its own standing within the rankings. The Irish, presuming two more wins this season, will likely finish ranked at No. 11 or 12.

When the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl host the Playoff, like last year, finishing No. 11 will be good enough to get an invite to the Peach Bowl. When the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl host the semifinals, a la 2017, No. 11 will result in heading to … the Camping World Bowl.

The difference? The Orange contractually needs to make room for a middling ACC team when not hosting the Playoff if Clemson is in the Playoff.

Let’s amend the original thesis to … Most years, going 10-2 will be enough to land Notre Dame in a New Year’s Six bowl because its schedule will hold up better and because the rest of the country will not, logically speaking.


All that is to say, Notre Dame’s slim hopes of reaching the Cotton Bowl remain unchanged. If both Pac-12 Playoff contenders win this weekend, slim will be reduced to utterly improbable. Considering No. 6 Oregon is favored by 14.5 at Arizona State and No. 7 Utah is favored by 22 at Arizona as of early Wednesday a.m., things may already be utterly improbable.

Operating under the belief both the Ducks and the Utes reach the Pac-12 championship game 11-1, the Irish have no discernable path back to Dallas. The simple roadblock features the Pac-12’s best going to the Rose Bowl and the loser taking the Cotton Bowl at-large slot.

The alternate possibility includes the Pac-12 champion in the Playoff. In that scenario, no number of coming losses would knock No. 4 Georgia or No. 5 Alabama behind Notre Dame. One would head to the Sugar Bowl while the other filled in the Orange Bowl. All it would then take to 100 percent deny the Irish any Cotton hopes would be No. 11 Florida beating Florida State on Nov. 30.


The Camping World Bowl it will be then. Cynics find delight in scoffing at any bowl short of the Playoff but dismissing the Dec. 28 contest is foolhardy. It will open the day of semifinals, on ABC opposite the Cotton Bowl on ESPN. Which will get more eyeballs, No. 12 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 Iowa State on ABC or No. 9 Utah vs. No. 16 Memphis on ESPN? (Those rankings are rough approximations of future events.)

Even if it is the latter by a slim margin, this will likely be the third consecutive Camping World Bowl to feature a top-25 matchup and fourth in five years.

Iowa State needed a last-second field goal to hold off Texas’ upset bid Saturday, winning 23-21. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)

Yes, now-No. 22 Iowa State took the practical lead to be the Irish opponent with its last-second victory against Texas on Saturday. No. 21 Oklahoma State may take exception to that, but the Cowboys would have to upset Oklahoma to remain in the driver’s seat, while the Cyclones will need to top Kansas and Kansas State.


Louisville (6-4): The Cardinals reached bowl eligibility with a 34-20 win at North Carolina State. Now they host a reeling Syracuse (4 ET; ACC Network) as 9-point favorites. A combined point total over/under of 62 suggests a 35-26 finish.

New Mexico (2-8): The Lobos lost 42-29 at now-No. 20 Boise State, getting out-gained 509 yards to 292. They will now play a rescheduled contest against Air Force (2 ET; ESPN3). The Falcons are favored by 22 with an over/under of 55.5, but frankly, it is hard to envision New Mexico scoring 17 against a triple-option offense.

No. 4 Georgia (9-1): The Bulldogs survived their toughest remaining regular-season challenge with a 21-14 win at now-No. 15 Auburn. Georgia got out to a 21-0 lead before Kirby Smart became overly cautious and allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns. If he can avoid doing that again, the Bulldogs should hold off Texas A&M (3:30 ET; CBS) as 13.5-point favorites. The over/under of 45 points sets a relatively high-scoring bar of 29-16.

Virginia (7-3): The Cavaliers come off an idle week with Liberty’s arrival (12 ET; ACC Network Extra). Don’t underestimate the Flames; there is a reason they are only 17-point underdogs. But Bronco Mendenhall’s defense should make good on the 36-19 score projected by a 55.5-point over/under.

Bowling Green (3-8): This space did not see fit to preempt the newest rankings with this weekly recap just to preview the Falcons 66-24 drubbing at the hands of Ohio on Tuesday. That makes it Opponents 110, Bowling Green 27 in the last two weeks.

No. 23 USC (7-4): The Trojans raced past Cal, 41-17, thanks to freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis’ four touchdowns and 406 yards on 29-of-35 passing. USC ends its season a week early against UCLA (3:30 ET; ABC) as 13.5-point favorites. Given Slovis’ successes and UCLA’s SP+ defensive ranking of No. 81, maybe the over/under of 63 and its expected result of 38-25 is conservative.

No. 13 Michigan (8-2): The Wolverines outscored Michigan State 27-3 in the second half en route to a 44-10 walloping and now carry that momentum to Indiana (3:30 ET; ESPN) as 9-point favorites with an over/under of 53. Michigan is on a roll right now, so a 31-22 win might be underwhelming.

Virginia Tech (7-3): The Hokies blanked Georgia Tech, 45-0, giving up only 134 yards and forcing defensive coordinator Bud Foster to reiterate he will retire after this season. Before he does that, though, Virginia Tech will lean on its defense against Pittsburgh (3:30 ET; ESPN2) as 4-point favorites with an over/under of 46.5 hinting at a 25-21 result.

Duke (4-6): The Blue Devils fell apart against Syracuse, 49-6. They will try to redeem themselves at Wake Forest (7:30 ET; ACC Network), but as touchdown underdogs, that may be a pipe dream.

Navy (7-2): The Midshipmen already have more important things to do than worry about last weekend’s 52-20 loss at Notre Dame. Their AAC title hopes hinge on winning against No. 25 SMU (3:30 ET; CBSSN). Navy is favored by 3.5 with an over/under of 68. The Mustangs will not be afraid to get involved in a 36-32 shootout.

Boston College (5-5): The seventh and final opponent to meet the Irish coming off an idle week, the Eagles are 19.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 64 setting up a fourth 40-point outing from Notre Dame, matching last year’s total.

Stanford (4-6): The Cardinal’s bowl hopes are on life support after falling 49-22 at Washington State despite 504 passing yards from Davis Mills. Throwing for 500 yards is worth only so much when the team rushes for six yards on 10 carries. Stanford is a field goal favorite against Cal (4 ET; Pac 12 Network) in a game some would consider — I apologize for nothing — “big” despite its meager over/under of 41.5.

 

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame, Clark Lea comfortable with option

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Navy still had a chance at the start of Saturday’s second quarter. Notre Dame led 14-0, but the Midshipmen were near midfield and would receive the kickoff to start the second half. They could reasonably tie the game halfway through the third quarter.

Then a 3rd-and-13 resulted in Irish senior defensive end Khalid Kareem forcing his second fumble of the day, tapping it out of Navy senior quarterback Malcolm Perry’s hands as Perry desperately tried to make a play to convert the needed third down. Four snaps later Notre Dame scored and the route was on in full effect.

The stat sheet focuses on third-down conversions — the Midshipmen went 5-of-16 in the 52-20 loss — but the real work was done on the two snaps before Kareem’s reach. One Navy rush barely got back to the line of scrimmage; the next saw Perry tackled for a three-yard loss. The triple-option is not designed for 3rd-and-longs; rather, it specializes in turning 3rd-and-short into 4th-and-shorter.

Limiting the 3rd-and-short moments has allowed the Irish to halt the triple-option the last three years, since Clark Lea’s arrival, initially as linebackers coach under Mike Elko and the last two years as defensive coordinator.

“We’ve had a very disciplined approach to how we want to defend Navy,” head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “I would just say that we’ve put them in longer third-down situations, we have made it more difficult for them to convert. We’re physically a better defense.”

In this weekend’s first half, the Midshipmen went 3-of-9 on third and fourth downs, enjoying only one true 3rd-and-short. Lea’s scheme won the third downs before even getting to them. Sending junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (above) after Perry forced the issue as often as not. Owusu-Koramoah was technically credited for a sack on the aforementioned second down. If not for him, that 3rd-and-13 may have been 3rd-and-4. All three of his tackles, with 1.5 sacks, came in the first half.

“We started pressuring more a little bit from the edges,” junior linebacker Drew White said after leading Notre Dame with 10 tackles. “Someone coming from the outside that was a quarterback player but was rushing, coming off the edge, causing havoc, not letting [Navy] dictate what we were in.”

That approach continued after the blowout allowed Owusu-Koramoah some rest. It was, in fact, his backup who had the defensive play of the day once the game reached blowout status. Sophomore Paul Moala was coming off the edge just as White described when he snatched the pitch out of the air.

The Irish held the Midshipmen to 9-of-21 on third and fourth downs Saturday, fitting that general trend line of the last three years:
2017 — 12-of-24
2018 — 4-of-15

The latter of those numbers could be dismissed as a terrible Navy team, but this season’s Midshipmen are at least as good as last year’s were bad, and Lea’s defense held all the same.

ON NOTRE DAME’S RUNNING BACKS
Four different Irish backs took a total of 20 carries for 55 yards Saturday, hardly a strong showing. At this point in the season, the rushing attack is what it is: lackluster. Some of that traces to replacing a pair of three-year starters on the right side of the line, but only so much of it.

Kelly does not inherently dispute that, but he also sees beyond the initial stat line.

“I’m watching (sophomore) C’Bo Flemister really grow up and mature, and (senior) Tony Jones being a tough, hard-nosed guy for us,” Kelly said before noting sophomore Jahmir Smith and junior Jafar Armstrong have been bothered by injuries. “… I know everybody’s looking for that thousand-yard back, but we are going to be more of a committee and the one thing about them is that they all do the dirty jobs.”

Now tune in here, because what sounds like coach-speak is very much a truth.

“They’re going to pick up a blitzing ‘backer, they’re going to run interference on blocking areas. They do a lot of different jobs that some backs won’t do.”

On Notre Dame’s opening drive Saturday, a false start followed by a failed running play created a 2nd-and-18. Senior quarterback Ian Book bolted from the pocket and gained all of two yards. That brought up 3rd-and-16, when Book again failed to find a receiver. Scrambling on a 3rd-and-very long is generally ill-advised, and Book would have ended up five or six yards short of the first down if not for Jones.

That downfield block was the definition of dirty work. It led to a 4th-and-1 that Jones converted. Three plays later, the Irish were up 7-0.

ON ALOHI GILMAN
Presuming the senior safety does indeed head to the NFL after this season, it should be noted he is 3-0 in the Notre Dame-Navy series. No other senior on either roster can claim that.

INJURY UPDATE
The Irish will be without sophomore linebacker Shayne Simon moving forward after he injured a patella tendon Saturday, per Kelly. Simon will miss spring practices but could be back in action by the fall.

Sophomore defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola sprained his ankle, making him day-to-day as of Monday.

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE OF THE WEEKEND
Notre Dame’s air attack downs No. 23 Navy in 52-20 rout
Things We Learned: Book’s confidence carrying Notre Dame offense to new heights

 

Things We Learned: Book’s confidence carrying Notre Dame offense to new heights

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Duke and No. 23 Navy may not be the cream of college football’s crop, but they were the teams on Notre Dame’s schedule, and the Irish made the absolute most of those opportunities. Diminishing the Blue Devils and the Midshipmen — and, for that matter, Virginia Tech given how Notre Dame finished that 21-20 memory — serves to only unjustly minimize Notre Dame’s November surge. 

That offensive surge is undeniable.

In its last nine quarters, the Irish have scored 97 points, only falling short of triple digits due to a missed field goal. They have converted exactly half their third downs, and they have gained 1,048 yards, all since the 13:25 mark of the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech.

“Our offense is starting to roll,” senior quarterback Ian Book said after throwing for 284 yards and five touchdowns on 14-of-20 passing Saturday. “It’s awesome. We’ve got 10 other guys on the field that are playing for each other, and that’s when you find success.”

These opponents were not New Mexico and Bowling Green. They were a peaking Bud Foster defense, a David Cutcliffe set of fundamentals and perhaps the best and most-complete Navy team in generations. Book was not supposed to complete 58.1 percent of his passes for 585 yards and nine touchdown passes in those nine quarters, not to mention his game-winning touchdown rush against the Hokies.

In Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s mind, maybe Book was supposed to, despite his myriad early-season struggles, bottoming out arguably not at Michigan but in the early-going against Virginia Tech.

“I knew what we had,” Kelly said after Notre Dame walloped the Midshipmen, 52-20. “I knew what he was going to give us. If it’s Major League Baseball, he had a little slump. I knew what he was capable of. We maintained confidence in him. The only thing I ever said to him is, ‘Don’t lose confidence in yourself. Stay confident in yourself.’”

Book is confident. Even as he opened against the Hokies with a three-and-out followed by an interception, he was confident. Pinpointing this offensive surge’s start to the fourth quarter two weeks ago shorts his 18-of-30 for 216 yards and two touchdowns in the first three quarters on Nov. 2.

After that first-quarter interception, there might not have been much faith in Book from others, but he did not doubt himself. That much was apparent and made apparent.

“He works so hard, he does all the right things,” Kelly said. “It was just a matter of there was too much noise and he had to find a mechanism as the quarterback at Notre Dame to eliminate all the noise that comes with. He’s found it and he’s in a great spot.”

Kelly didn’t quite quote “For Love of the Game,” but his mechanism reference begs the parallel to Billy Chappell’s mantra of “Clear the mechanism.” Since Book cleared his mechanism, he has nearly matched Chappell’s perfect game. (Whoops, spoiler alert.)

“It’s always good, blocking out the noise, letting people say whatever they want,” Book said. “It really doesn’t matter. It’s about us. It’s hard to win in November. We’re doing that, and we’ve got to keep it going.”

Book’s perfect game has included going 11-of-11 in the red zone the last two weeks, complete with nine touchdowns. It has included making Chase Claypool a lot of money in the spring’s NFL draft. And it even included hitting sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy in stride streaking downfield.

Let that 70-yard bomb end any debate about Book’s deep ball abilities. It truly was not if he could throw it, but if he had the protection, would he throw it. 51 yards in the air later …

“He can throw the ball deep, so we can take that one off the list of many,” Kelly said. “It’s a beautiful throw. He’s capable of making all the throws. Good to have some speed back there, Lenzy being able to give us that stretch vertically. It was a beautiful throw and nice to see those plays hit.”

Hitting just one of those changes defensive approaches, not only for the day, but for weeks. It clearly boosts confidence from within, confidence that already readily existed. Oh, and it adds to some prodigious stat lines.

The Irish still lack a ground game, a failing that can no longer be attributed to the running backs or the offensive line or the play calling, a void undoubtedly the result of a combination of all three. Continuing this surge without a rushing attack will be more difficult than if there was one on hand, but it should still be more than possible.

Notre Dame was never going to be an underdog against Boston College or Stanford this season, even after the embarrassing Michigan debacle. The last nine quarters of efficient fireworks have strengthened that reality and bettered the Irish chances of doing the hard thing Book mentioned, winning in November.

Two days after falling apart in Ann Arbor, Kelly identified the cleansing possibilities represented by the final month of the season.

“Hey, win the month of November, the noise will change. All will be happy.”

Three games down, all may not be happy yet, but Notre Dame is once again on a clear path to a 10-win season, ending on a five-game winning streak. Notch the next two and all certainly should be happy, not to mention confident.