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.