SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s offense could not move the ball against Virginia Tech, until it could. On a Saturday rife with 3-and-outs, three turnovers and an average of fewer than five yards per play, the No. 16 Irish needed a last-minute to top the Hokies, 21-20.
Senior quarterback Ian Book capped a prolific, up-and-down day by taking a designed quarterback run around the outside for seven yards and Notre Dame’s only lead of the second half with just 29 seconds remaining.
Up until then, the Irish (6-2) had gained 182 yards on 28 plays in the second half, a 4.7 yards per play average. The offense had not found momentum at any point, failing in the red zone three times, its running backs managing all of 58 yards on 23 carries. That 87-yard, 18-play drive was not entirely out of nowhere, but it did not fit with the offensive performance showcased throughout most of the day.
“They again found a way to win a football game, which is very difficult, especially the way they did it,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “… Obviously, we didn’t execute offensively as well as we would have liked, but I saw the passion, the desire.”
That passion and desire barely made up for a day of inefficient play. The winning drive needed two third-down and two fourth-down conversions. Three of those were of seven yards or more. Senior receiver Chase Claypool caught two passes for 39 yards to spur the drive, finishing with 118 yards on eight receptions. Book’s score may have come with half a minute left on the clock, but the Irish were nearly out of last chances.
“We were able to move the ball a lot (earlier) and we had some mistakes in the red zone,” Book said. “So we knew we could go down there and do it and really put up points on this drive. It was really just to trust in each other, keep doing what we were doing.”
Those mistakes Book referenced kept the Hokies (5-3) in the game. Despite Notre Dame gaining 253 yards and 11 first downs in the first half, compared to 85 and five from Virginia Tech, the break featured a 14-14 tie. In the first seven games of the year, the Irish scored on 24-of-24 red-zone possessions with 21 touchdowns. Against the Hokies, Book threw an interception on Notre Dame’s first trip near the end zone and just before the half a Jafar Armstrong goal-line carry became a 14-point swing.
As the junior running back plowed into the line with seconds remaining before halftime, a Virginia Tech helmet met him. To be more exact, it met the ball, which then bounced loose and high enough for Hokies senior safety Divine Deablo to snag it without pausing. Only Book stood between Deablo and the opposite end zone. A full 98 yards later and what could have been a 21-7 Irish lead at halftime was instead a 14-14 tie.
“Going in right before the half to seemingly take, I don’t want to say control of the game, but have it well in hand in the sense that it’s going to be difficult for them to mount an offensive charge the way we’re playing defensively,” Kelly said. “Of course, they go 90-something yards on a fumble return.
“That’s difficult, but our guys responded. We got them back together at halftime, told them they got to continue to fight, continue to persevere.”
That perseverance kept Notre Dame just close enough to Virginia Tech to survive a litany of mistakes including the fumble return, another Book interception and a missed field goal rendering another red-zone drive scoreless, not to mention the most mindless kickoff return conceivable. That fight included Claypool making spectacular catches, and it needed every ounce of Book, the good outweighing the bad.
“Those are all character traits that we’re looking for that we needed to see on display,” Kelly said.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book had a tumultuous week. Coming off an atrocious 8-of-25 passing for 73 yards at Michigan last week, the doubt about his ability from the outside at least reached the Irish locker room door. That much was confirmed by his teammates and head coach not feigning ignorance of the public hand-wringing.
They did not worry in the same way. Even when Notre Dame had to score or end up with a second straight loss, they did not worry with Book in the huddle.
“He’s just the leader that he is,” Irish junior tight end Cole Kmet said. “No matter what happens in the game, good or bad, he comes back as a positive dude. He was going to lead us down the field and he did just that.”
Book finished with 341 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-53 passing, also throwing two interceptions, one the result of him risking a deep ball, far from the best part of his game if not also a needed aspect to any offense. A third interception, on another deep shot, was wiped off the board by a roughing the passer penalty not demanding to be called but one common to today’s game. He added 50 yards and the winning touchdown on 13 rushes.
In other words, Book had a hand in 391 of Notre Dame’s 447 total yards. On that final 87-yard drive he threw for 63 yards and ran for 21 more. He was, to put it simply, the Irish offense.
“Ian Book can have a lot of great things happen for him,” Kelly said. “He was back to throwing the football with much more authority, confidence. … When you’re dropping eight and there’s eight guys in coverage, (he) did a great job.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
The winning drive was far from efficient, but moments of it were pretty. In particular, both of Claypool’s catches. The first, above, needed review to confirm it as a catch, but that pause allowed for appreciation of every inch of Claypool’s 6-foot-4 ⅜ frame.
His second catch of the drive was even more pivotal, though far from as impressive. While Notre Dame needed a few on-point curl routes to move the chains to start the drive, Book managed to hit Claypool in stride on a deep slant for 26 yards to set up the winning dash.
That chunk gain came on a 4th-and-10, a time when the Irish may not have inherently been looking to get into first-and-goal territory.
“Chase was a dude on the drive,” Kmet said. “He was just demanding the ball and Ian was putting it where Chase could get it, and Chase was making those plays.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Without that fumble, Notre Dame may have cruised to victory. That seems implausible coming off a one-point game only victorious because of that last-minute drive, but consider an alternate reality where Armstrong is merely tackled and the Irish punch it into the end zone on the next play, taking a 21-7 lead into halftime.
In the real world, the Hokies never had reason to ease their foot off the gas, never ahead by more than one score, so there is no reason to not simply transfer their second-half stats into the alternate reality. They gained 155 yards on 30 plays. Twice, they reached the red zone, settling for field goals both times.
Even if Virginia Tech had been more aggressive and turned those field goals into touchdowns, it would have needed the Irish to not produce at all in the second half in order to have a chance. For that matter, up two touchdowns, Notre Dame would have ground the game down as much as it could and been more ready to accept a field goal rather than take a shot downfield (resulting in an interception) or backpedaling from the goal line (turning into a missed field goal).
“We started tight,” Kelly said. “The turnovers kind of contributed to that. Everybody now is kind of, I don’t want to make a mistake, instead of just be who you are, keep playing, be aggressive.”
That fumble, more than anything else, changed the tone of this contest. It, in fact, made it a contest.
STAT OF THE GAME
1,273. That is how many carries Irish running backs had between fumbles before Armstrong’s. That streak traced all the way back to Nov. 21, 2015, against Boston College at Fenway Park.
To put that length of time in a different context, the No. 1 song on the charts in those days was “Hello” by Adele. Either that song is not as old as it seems, or Notre Dame backs managed ball security for longer than realized.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
9:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cole Kmet 8-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Virginia Tech 0. (2 plays, 26 yards, 0:26)
1:15 — Virginia Tech touchdown. Damon Hazelton 8-yard pass from Quincy Patterson. Brian Johnson PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Virginia Tech 7. (8 plays, 45 yards, 2:25)
11:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tommy Tremble 4-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Virginia Tech 7. (11 plays, 77 yards, 4:25)
00:09 — Virginia Tech touchdown. Divine Deablo 98-yard fumble return. Johnson PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Virginia Tech 14.
11:00 — Virginia Tech field goal. Johnson 44 yards. Virginia Tech 17, Notre Dame 14. (7 plays, 49 yards, 4:00)
13:25 — Virginia Tech field goal. Johnson 25 yards. Virginia Tech 20. Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 76 yards, 4:49)
00:29 – Notre Dame touchdown. Book 7-yard run. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Virginia Tech 20. (18 plays, 87 yards, 2:53)