EVANSTON, Ill. — For a half, Northwestern looked like the toughest defense No. 4 Notre Dame (9-0) had faced with junior Ian Book starting at quarterback. While the Wildcats were not ranked and Ryan Field was anything but intimidating in any way, this was still November. Bad things happen to the Irish in November.
“We have to stay humble,” junior receiver Chase Claypool said after making eight catches for 130 yards. “Last year around this time, the rankings came out and then Miami happened.”
That three-syllable, five-character word has hung above Notre Dame all season, and that will still be the case for at least another two weeks. But the 31-21 victory at Northwestern (5-4) was a loud counterargument. These Irish know what happens to most teams in November, and that awareness, that familiarity keeps everyone on their toes.
Notre Dame is a long way from where it wants to be. That trip to Yankee Stadium looks more and more dubious with each Syracuse victory. But for now, the Irish know what matters — now Florida State — and what doesn’t, those rankings.
“It’s hard to win in November,” junior quarterback Ian Book said. “We’re in such a good situation and we know that. I think this team does such a good job of focusing one week at a time. Everyone is excited, but everyone is just ready for Florida State.”
The fact that Book had hardly changed out of his uniform and was already mentioning the Seminoles may make this “one week at a time” mentality seem suspect, but he did not mention then reaching 11-0 or 12-0. He said only Florida State. Per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, the next step on the team’s march toward reaching all goals is to finish the home schedule without a loss. That has clearly been on the radar for a bit.
Starting November well has been, too. The offseason was spent readying for this physical and mental burden. When a botched handoff gifted the Wildcats possession on the game’s fourth snap, the defense did not panic. The quick change led to a missed field goal and things proceeded as always wanted, even if sluggishly for a half.
“The average team or teams in years past, they feel that pressure building every single week,” junior cornerback Julian Love said. “Which it does, but we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. That has led us to be 9-0.
“We’ve realized that, and we’ve been coached through that. It’s a bunch of seniors, a bunch of vets that are really leading us in that confidence and not the pressure.”
It is trite to say Notre Dame is confident, not cocky, but it just may be the case. Book led an even-keeled team to the shores of Lake Michigan not inherently expecting to rout the Wildcats, but to beat them. This was the best defense he has faced and expecting another 40-point showing would have been ambitious, but expecting a couple touchdowns in due time was reasonable. There was a reason Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long kept the game-sealing play call in their back pocket until it was needed — they expected it to be needed.
Senior linebacker Te’von Coney and the Irish defense knew they were facing a four-year starter at quarterback. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea game planned to give Clayton Thorson options, but only options Lea deemed unlikely to succeed. Shutting the Wildcats down was not the intention, limiting them was.
That is confidence, not cockines. That is doing what you’ve been doing. That is how a very good team, but not an utterly great one, reaches 12-0.
How does a very good team become an utterly great one? It starts with quarterback development.
Book’s halftime stats were less than pedestrian: 7-of-15 for 107 yards, including 1-of-4 for nine yards in the second quarter. This was not the quarterback who had sparked Notre Dame the last five weeks.
Then came his second half: 15-of-19 for 236 yards and two touchdowns. That would be a strong performance if across an entire game.
What happened? Book has enough experience under his belt now to sit down at halftime and have a genuine conversation with Long and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees. At the end of it, Book knew what they wanted to do to counteract the Wildcats’ defense. And he did it.
This was not within Book’s abilities earlier this year.
“Probably would have taken a film study for him to make those adjustments and then it would probably go into action the following week,” Kelly said. “(Now) he can make [the adjustments] at halftime. You can sit down, go over them, draw them up. He can see them clearly, and then access those immediately in the third quarter.”
Kelly described a process that begins briefly with Long before it is handed over to Rees.
“Then Tommy really sits down with [Book] and says, this is where we’re going with the football because of this. They work well together.”
And a third voice chimes in. Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is naturally next to Book during these sessions, and considering Wimbush has 15 career starts to his name and three years of studying film with Book, it makes sense he may have an observation, interpretation or callback that fits a situation.
At halftime Saturday night, Northwestern was clearly the best defense Book had faced. His stats looked, well, Wimbush-ian. After the break, Book was back to being Book again.
What is the next step? Implementing such changes on the sideline while the defense forces a three-and-out. That may not come until next year, but this current trend indicates such development is on its way.
As for the reason the Irish did not blow out the Wildcats once Book was rolling … is it something learned if it was already known? These special teams are suspect.
It does not, but it needs to be reiterated.
The blocked punt obviously led to a touchdown to cut the Notre Dame lead to 24-21. The previous Northwestern score? Aided by an illegal formation penalty on the Irish kickoff, giving a five-yard boost in immediate field position.
When sophomore kicker Jonathan Doerer sent a kickoff out of bounds in the third quarter, it did not cost Notre Dame anything but field position, but it continues a struggle that has contributed to two kickoff return touchdowns allowed.
Not all the special teams issues came when getting rid of the ball. There was also a hold from junior Jonathan Jones on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter, forcing the Irish to start the drive from the 11-yard line. If Book had not finished that drive with his 23-yard touchdown run, Jones’ penalty could loom much, much larger.
These mistakes are how a very good team becomes known as a flawed team.
“Attention to detail was not what it needed to be,” Kelly said.
That attention to detail comes with focus. One might expect a junior safety involved in two seasons with Playoff aspirations would know not to leave his block early on a punt. One might expect a kicker to fulfill his one duty. One might expect these basics to not add stress.
For the most part, those expectations were met Saturday. There was enough focus. Thank last year’s lack thereof.
“Last year we were in the same situation,” Coney said. “We were in the same situation where we had a chance to complete the mission. We didn’t do a good job of staying focused. We looked too ahead and it cost us.
“This year we have to stay in the moment. That’s the key. Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low.”