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

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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