SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame finally knows how it feels to go up against a Brian VanGorder defense. More precisely, the No. 9 Irish (4-1) know how it feels to go through a VanGorder defense, as they did over and over again Saturday in a 52-0 victory against Bowling Green (1-4)
Notre Dame turned the below scoring summary into a game of Mad Libs in the first half as the Irish passing game picked apart the Falcons and defensive coordinator VanGorder’s scheme. First, senior quarterback Ian Book found sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble uncovered in the end zone. Then he connected with junior tight end Cole Kmet for a score, somehow open before Book even received the shotgun snap.
“My job is to get the ball out there on the perimeter,” Book said. “We’ve got some really skilled guys out there. It’s my job to get the ball to them, and I was definitely happy with the way the o-line protected today. They did a great job, I had a lot of time.
“I was able to push the ball downfield, and [offensive coordinator Chip Long] talks about it all the time, great players make big plays, and that’s what we needed. We had a few of those tonight. We’re going to need it for the rest of the season.”
Only a McKinley drop in the third quarter prevented Book from tying Brady Quinn’s single-game record of six touchdown passes, set in 2005 against BYU. Book finished with 261 yards and five scores on 16-of-20 passing, leading the way for an offense that gashed the Falcons for 573 total yards.
Kelly knew Book was on the verge of tying Quinn and consciously gave Long the go-ahead to take a shot at it. After two long rushes got Notre Dame into the red zone, three passes followed, the final one being the underneath route to McKinley, who nonetheless finished with five receptions for 104 yards.
Once that ball hit the turf, Book’s night was over, partly because he was chasing only a tied record. To break it would have been an entirely different conversation.
“I told Chip, ‘You’ve got one series with him. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, no big deal,’” Kelly said. “Because it’s tying the record. As I told him, tying the record is ‘meh.’ If you’re going to break the record, then maybe we’ll do something about it.”
While not as filled with highlights, the Irish defense’s total showing may have been more impressive. After all, Notre Dame scored 66 points less than a month ago. The last time the Irish shut out an opponent was all the way back in 2014 against Michigan.
That was the rare moment when a VanGorder-coached defense was not a distinct liability. Obviously, no one on the current roster was around for that 31-0 victory against the Wolverines.
Senior defensive end Julian Okwara and senior safety Jalen Elliott were apparently aware of their careers’ lack of a shutout. From the sidelines and watching the reserves, they did not dare to think of it as a possibility until it was a reality.
“When the clock hit zero in the fourth quarter,” said Okwara, who finished with three tackles including two for loss and one sack. “Obviously, anything can happen. They could fumble, pick it up and run. You don’t stop playing until the last down when the clock hit zero. That’s when we for sure knew.”
Considering Bowling Green gained all of 228 yards, its longest completion went for 24 yards, and its only genuine threat at scoring was snuffed out when Okwara himself blocked a third-quarter field goal attempt, the reality of the shutout was apparent long before the clock hit quadruple zeroes. In fact, after that field goal block, the Falcons never again crossed midfield.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Well, maybe that is not entirely fair. Notre Dame opened with a three-and-out on its first possession. Book completed two passes, but junior receiver Michael Young lost two yards on the second of them and Book’s scramble on third down never stood a chance of reaching the chains.
The Irish defense, though, then forced a three-and-out, and Notre Dame turned to senior running back Tony Jones. The first four snaps of that drive were handed to him, and Jones took them for 40 yards, on his way to finishing with 102 yards on just seven carries.
Book followed that up with a 23-yard pass to McKinley before throwing to Tremble in the end zone.
So if the turning point was not the opening kickoff; perhaps it was those handoffs to Jones that showed how soft Bowling Green’s defense would be. Either way, the Irish knew they had a talent advantage and saw fit to rely on it.
“[The Falcons] were undermanned today,” Kelly said. “They battled. They played as hard as they could. But certainly it was a situation where we were a better football team.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
None of the touchdown catches were particularly difficult plays. Tremble outright beat his man, and Kmet was somehow forgotten by the defense. Claypool’s second touchdown came on an underneath route with enough of a cushion he could have backpedaled into the end zone, while McKinley’s snag was largely the result of Book scrambling to buy time, though McKinley showed awareness to find an open spot in the defense, conveniently in the end zone.
But Claypool’s first score came on a downfield route, and Book simply taking that shot is a step forward in his season, let alone hitting it without trouble.
“We had some traditional calls down the field,” Kelly said. “There were some things that I thought [Book] saw the field well today.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Inevitably, this has to be Book. Nine different receivers caught passes, only McKinley and Claypool gaining more than 40 yards, the former partly because he played with both Book and sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec in mop-up work, the latter largely due to that 34-yard touchdown reception.
Only Jones rushed for more than 30 yards among running backs, but he never found the end zone.
No defender made more than six tackles or one sack. Unless giving this nod to Okwara’s outreached hand for keeping alive the shutout, the efforts were more collective than individual.
Book’s stats, however, were clearly exemplary. Looking at his numbers heading into halftime underscores such: 15-of-17 for 255 yards and five scores. He was averaging 15 yards per pass attempt, not too far off the Notre Dame single-game record of 17.5 set by Jimmy Clausen against Nevada in 2009.
That is two records Book approached in one afternoon. Suffice it to say, it was a good day, especially coming off an uneven performance a week ago.
“Going through all my progressions, staying in the pocket, delivering the ball, getting the ball to playmakers,” Book said. “It was a great week to do that. I’ve got to do it every week.”
STAT OF THE GAME
Heading into the weekend, the Irish had converted 16-of-50 third downs. Against VanGorder’s defense, they successfully moved the chains on 8-of-11 third downs.
Yes, this was against an outmanned, outgunned, outschemed defense, but it was still a change from one of Notre Dame’s primary failings thus far this season.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Bowling Green head coach Scott Loeffler spent the last three seasons at Boston College as the offensive coordinator, facing Notre Dame in 2017. He is more familiar with the Irish than most first-year MAC head coaches would be.
“This might be their best defense they’ve had in a long time,” he said. “I said that earlier in the week. They’ve done a great job recruiting. I think there’s not a hole on their defense. They’re long, they’re athletic, they’re different. And they’ll be a top-five team. They’re a good football team — great football team, in my opinion.”
9:32 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tommy Tremble 17-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Bowling Green 0. (6 plays, 80 yards, 1:58)
6:51 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cole Kmet 21-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Bowling Green 0. (3 plays, 46 yards, 0:59)
4:44 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 34-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Bowling Green 0. (4 plays, 50 yards, 1:210)
6:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Claypool 8-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Bowling Green 0. (4 plays, 53 yards, 1:27)
1:24 — Notre Dame touchdown. Javon McKinley 25-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Bowling Green 0. (6 plays, 78 yards, 3:03)
7:12 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 27 yards. Notre Dame 38, Bowling Green 0. 6 plays, 68 yards, 1:42)
2:23 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 4-yard pass from Phil Jurkovec. Harrison Leonard PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Bowling Green 0. (6 plays, 75 yards, 1:48)
6:56 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 1-yard run. Leonard PAT good. Notre Dame 52, Bowling Green 0. (12 plays, 79 yards, 5:50)