SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame and Ian Book did enough to beat Virginia Tech, no more, no less. Enough.
The gritty yet inefficient 21-20 victory settled worries the No. 16 Irish (6-2) might mail in the rest of their season devoid of Playoff hopes, but it did nothing to quell the worries of the offensive ineffectiveness that beset Notre Dame a week ago in its embarrassing loss at Michigan.
The Irish know as much, from head coach Brian Kelly to Book to the rest of the offense. The 18-play, 87-yard, last-minute touchdown drive only meant the repairs to those woes can be done in times of renewed — but claimed never entirely absent — confidence rather than utter despair.
“There’s a lot that we need to get better on,” junior tight end Cole Kmet said. “That’s pretty obvious, but it’s definitely good to show that we can come back from behind like that and drive down the field in the last couple of minutes, come out with a victory.”
The need to get better on a lot was exceedingly obvious as Notre Dame offered six different drives lasting three plays and a punt, as it gained all of 55 yards in the third quarter while the Hokies left the door open, as it failed in the red zone on half its trips there.
Yet, the final drive’s decisiveness gave a peak of what is possible from this offense, even against a solid defense. Virginia Tech is far from the outfit from defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s peak, but his final iteration is just as far from disastrous. This was neither New Mexico nor Bowling Green. This was a competent defense.
When the Irish had to, absolutely had to succeed, they did. That showed both realized potential and positive mindset. Frankly, the former has never been in doubt on an offense with future NFL threats in Kmet and senior receiver Chase Claypool, the latter of which had a day that should catch some draftnik’s eyes once they review it. The mindset, however, was nowhere to be found a week ago.
On that game-winning drive, Book had the needed aggressiveness in spades.
“I’m just an extremely confident person, but I also truly believe in everyone on the offense, on my whole entire team,” said the senior quarterback after throwing for 341 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for a third. “I knew we could do it. Last week was last week. We forgot about that. We moved on.”
Book and Notre Dame needed to move on, lest the first no-showing in 24 months turned into the first November collapse in the same timeframe. They did despite the first day of Book’s career marred by repeated and avoidable turnovers; despite a 14-point swing on a fumble that elicited memories of Jonas Gray and South Florida, of Dayne Crist and USC; despite losing a second right-side offensive lineman for possibly the year within two weeks.
It was not that long ago that any one of those mishaps would have doomed the Irish to a loss. After beating Virginia a few weeks ago, Kelly said some of his earlier teams would not have found a way to win that game. If that was true then, and it was, most of Kelly’s earlier Irish renditions would have sought out ways to lose to Virginia Tech.
They would have lost despite out-gaining the Hokies 447 yards to 240. They would have lost despite the Notre Dame defense returning to its usual form under coordinator Clark Lea, giving up only one touchdown and standing stout when it most mattered, largely relying on a defensive package of five linemen including four nominal ends. Those earlier teams would have lost to a young quarterback making his first start.
Not these Irish, flaws and all. All the flaws and all.
“We didn’t execute offensively as well as we would have liked, but I saw the passion, the desire,” Kelly said. “You might say, well, you should have that all the time.
“The fact of the matter is, there’s a standard that we have, we didn’t live up to that standard (at Michigan) and the challenge was to come back and play to that standard. They did. Now the game of football is more than that. It requires execution and we did not have that at times.”
The standard Kelly refers to was of want-to, of discipline, of motivation. The total disappearance of all those in Ann Arbor rendered that defeat inexplicable, inexcusable and infuriating for frequent observers. Notre Dame did indeed return to those aspects Saturday. Claypool’s toe-tapping, Book’s determination and even senior receiver Javon McKinley’s sealing block on Book’s winning touchdown run all illustrated those intangibles.
Yet, the Irish lacked that execution until the end. Believing it would finally arrive could have been considered an exercise in insanity by the classic definition. The offense had not clicked Saturday; it had not clicked in weeks, really. The two-minute drill under Book was literally an unknown commodity, never successfully working before. Truthfully, it had been needed only once, when his last-gasp heave for Claypool fell harmlessly at Georgia in September.
Even when some urgency was needed earlier in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame had fallen short. That 6:23 drive covered 82 yards in 17 plays, actually at one point gaining 96 yards. The Irish reached the 3-yard line before moving backward 14 yards and failed to score at all in a one-possession game. The dismal display from the offense had arguably reached its nadir. That thought combined with the energy of the week could have established an on-field funk.
“That’s what I’m probably most proud about, is just being able to go on the sideline and after missing a field goal, and still having time but knowing and believing that we can go out there and do it,” Book said. “I didn’t see any disbelief in anybody.”
Maybe there should have been. According to Kelly, Book had not led a successful two-minute drive in practice all season. Some might twist that as a compliment of Lea’s defense, but at some point, one would think Book could luck into a broken coverage in practice.
Finding that success when it mattered, when Foster’s defense tried to clog passing lanes (albeit down one starting cornerback and by the end of the drive, both) and when failure likely meant a season in tailspin was a pipedream at best as the offense took the field with 3:22 left. Finding that success after a week of public criticism so deafening no one at Notre Dame pretended it didn’t exist required the mental fortitude that went AWOL a week ago.
“If he played for the New York Giants, he wouldn’t get as much that went on around here,” Kelly said of how Book handled the week’s negative attention. “It was way overblown. … I think he’s only going to get better from it.”
That remains to be seen. For 56 minutes on Saturday, Book was not better for it, but he remained unfazed, and that may be the biggest step forward of them all. That resilience led the Irish when they most needed it. That could not be found in Ann Arbor, but finding it against the Hokies was a step forward.
“They fought through it. They showed grit, and he did, as well. I’m proud of him,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t be more happy for those guys because they had to do it today. They weren’t going to get help from anybody. And they found a way to win.”
They did not find anything more than that, but they also did not find anything less.