30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Ian Book’s last-minute scamper ‘silences’ critics, sparks 16-game winning streak

6 Comments

Editor’s Note: The original intention of the “30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC” series was to set the stage for the 30th year of the partnership. But then 2020 intervened with a fury, and the season did not grant the time to publish the last half dozen entries. As 2020’s reach lengthens 2021’s winter doldrums, there is no reason not to walk down those memory lanes now.

The play call stood out as much as the call for silence that punctuated it. When Ian Book found the front corner of the end zone, hardly pursued, he made Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long look like a genius just as he confirmed how foolish many Notre Dame fans were the week before the Irish beat Virginia Tech, 21-20, in 2019.

A week earlier, Notre Dame had fallen apart in every way imaginable at Michigan, the worst loss of Book’s career. He had failed, the offensive line had failed, the offensive game plan had failed.

Suddenly, the Irish resurgence since the 2016 debacle was being litigated once again. Along with it, Book’s career.

“Please transfer … I’m so sick of ur [sic] antics”
“You actually suck. People think jelly [sic] the problem, no it’s you”
“Book is brutal. Sorry folks but he’s not even close to guys like Clausen, Rees, Quinn Mirer or Rice. He’s not accurate for” and here this space will stop quoting these 15-month old tweets verbatim in order to preserve its stance against using profanity.

And those are just a selection of social media comments still screenshot on one writer’s phone. Imagine the vitriol Book saw after the faceplant at Ann Arbor. He put a positive light on it that November, but such diplomacy was simply to avoid encouraging more nonsense.

Through 56 minutes against the Hokies, Book and Notre Dame had left the door open for more petulant clamoring. They had gained 182 yards on 28 plays in the second half, a 4.7 yards per play average. To pull from that afternoon’s recap, “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.”

The Irish took over with a bit more than three minutes remaining, trailing 20-14 and needing to cover 87 yards. Doing so would not be “entirely out of nowhere, but it [would] not fit with the offensive performance showcased most of the day.”

Two Book runs, 14 passes and one handoff brought his offense to the 7-yard line with 35 seconds left. That included two third-down and two fourth-down conversions, three of those being 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.

But in that final moment, Long expected Virginia Tech to bracket Claypool in the red zone, as it had all game and most of the season against such dominant receivers. Tight end Cole Kmet would face similar coverage.  That’s when Long called a run-pass option that was likely to end up with Book running for the end zone. There was a chance the Hokies would completely shift their coverage tendencies, but if not, the ball would be in Book’s hands, and Notre Dame did not have any timeouts remaining.

If Book was stopped short of the goal line, 35 seconds could reach four zeros long before the Irish got off another snap. Instead, he followed a Liam Eichenberg block, went around a textbook block from receiver Javon McKinley and slipped into the end zone with 29 seconds left, only the sixth time in Notre Dame history it scored a game-winning touchdown with fewer than 30 ticks remaining.

To Irish head coach Brian Kelly, that was an example of why he and Long leaned on Book so much in the first place.

“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.”

Rather than an unexpected and flattening loss to a scuffling program, Notre Dame was on a six-game winning streak to end 2019, a streak that reached 16 games in 2020.

“They again found a way to win a football game, which is very difficult, especially the way they did it,” Kelly said. “… Obviously, we didn’t execute offensively as well as we would have liked, but I saw the passion, the desire.”

Book’s stat line of 341 passing yards and two touchdowns, along with two interceptions, was far from perfect, but when factoring in his 50 rushing yards and the winning touchdown, it was clear the Irish offense was going nowhere without him. He had a hand in 391 of Notre Dame’s 447 total yards.

But the one stat that stood out the most was that single figure he stuck to his facemask as he crossed the goal line with the winning score. No, not that finger; his index finger. He had heard enough.

“I have never liked him as a quarterback”
“This was ridiculous. This happens way too often. Fire Kelly. Bench Book.”
“Since I know you’re reading your mentions, Ian, stop bailing out to the right at the first sign of pressure. Idk what Coach Kelly teaches you, but I promise this will help.”

That finger was indeed a planned response.

“I definitely had it planned,” Book told The Athletic the following offseason. “I figured that was pretty good timing.

“It was kind of like, ‘Silence. Don’t be happy for us now if you were just talking *#$% about us.’ You know what I mean? It wasn’t a diss to our fans, but it was just, we’ll be all right. Don’t pump us up now. Don’t hop on the bandwagon now.”

In those foolish fans’ defense, many of them didn’t. After Book won the game, after he got the Irish back on track, deep into his second season as a successful starter, they kept chirping into the void.

“Does that one stand for … I waited all game to make 1 play”
“Yeah maybe do it against an opponent that matters”
“We were 17 point favorites at home”

This is not to glamorize such sullen attempts at wit, but rather to underscore the noise heaped upon Book and Notre Dame that week, noise they silenced enough to get a win to push the Irish resurgence further forward.

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
The 1997 Navy save and the triple-overtime debacle a decade later
Lou Holtz’s farewell
Syracuse and snowballs, a 2008 comedy with a long-term payoff
Kelly’s 100 Notre Dame wins, marked by 2012 Stanford & 2020 Clemson
100 wins later, Brian Kelly’s debut following Charlie Weis’ end
The Bush Push
Offensive high against Pittsburgh brings ironic end to Willingham’s tenure
Darius Walker’s 2004 debut powers upset of No. 8 Michigan
The Game of the Century: No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24
Irish timeout gifts Michigan a last-second field goal in 1994
Irish wave goodbye to Michigan, 31-0, in 2014
Lightning strikes twice in South Florida’s first visit
Three overtimes, two No. 2s, one goal-line fumble
Te’o’s emotions & interceptions overwhelm No. 18 Michigan
Night games return, ‘Crazy Train’ debuts
Blowing out USC completes Irish return
Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated
The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991
Honorable Mentions

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

1 Comment

Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
Getty Images
24 Comments

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Clemson v Notre Dame
Getty Images
3 Comments

A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

Getty Images
45 Comments

The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.