Hoonhout: Notre Dame books its status as playoff contender
Tobias Hoonhout | Monday, October 1, 2018
Notre Dame is moving on.
It’s moving on from Stanford, a team the Irish (5-0) hadn’t beaten in four years, and hadn’t beaten by more than a touchdown since 2006.
It’s moving on from a 3-7 record under Brian Kelly against ranked teams in primetime before the start of the year — the Irish are 2-0 this season.
And it’s moving on from Brandon Wimbush.
Against David Shaw and the Cardinal (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12), junior Ian Book got his chance to stamp his name to the title of starting quarterback.
Last week against Wake Forest, he began to make his case.
Saturday, playing in Notre Dame’s first top-10 home matchup since 2005, he made a statement.
The Irish punished the Cardinal on both sides of the ball. The offense churned out 550 yards — balanced well on the ground and through the air — more than double what Stanford managed. And the Irish defense dominated the line of scrimmage, sacking Cardinal quarterback junior K.J. Costello five times and holding Heisman-hopeful senior Bryce Love to a mere 73 yards on 17 carries.
It was a complete team victory, but it all starts with the vision at quarterback.
Book is the answer to Notre Dame’s struggles to find a floor. The junior managed another 300-plus yard performance and threw for four touchdowns, all against a much-better secondary than what he faced last week against Wake Forest. He looked poised in the pocket and made plays with his feet when he had to, perhaps most memorably when the junior escaped pressure, extended the play and found junior wide receiver Chase Claypool in the back of the end zone at the end of the first half. It was a performance that may leave many wondering what Kelly was thinking in ever going back to Wimbush — people forget Book was also the one to beat LSU in the Citrus Bowl this past January.
But more importantly, Notre Dame finally knows its standard. Under Book, the Irish offense doesn’t just play with confidence, it plays with swagger. It makes a world of difference when you can consistently score touchdowns, and with a defense like the one the Irish have this year, it can put games out of reach in mere minutes. Just look at what happened in the fourth quarter. Up until Saturday, the Irish struggled mightily with putting up points in the second half, making games like Ball State and Vanderbilt much more nervy than they actually needed to be. But against Stanford, in four plays Notre Dame went from holding a fragile 24-17 lead to going up for good. Stanford had no answer to the defensive pressure and a surgical offense.
Cardinal head coach David Shaw has been a thorn in Brian Kelly’s side at Notre Dame, and Kelly has never convincingly beat Stanford. Saturday, with Book as the capstone, Kelly finally returned the favor.
Stanford finished the game with 229 yards.
Over half of that came on four plays.
The Cardinal ran 51 plays total.
Of their six second-half drives, four were three-and-outs and one was a first-play interception.
Kelly, Book and Notre Dame didn’t just win comfortably. They took their weakest facet — closing out games in the second half — against arguably their toughest opponent, and dominated.
There’s still a long way to go before the Irish have any chance of sniffing the Playoff, and next weekend’s trip to Blacksburg, Virginia, will certainly give us an even better picture of how good this team can be. But Notre Dame took all the right steps Saturday and then some. With an offense that is finally finding its rhythm and a defense as deep and as experienced as defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s, it looks like Kelly’s team certainly has the tools to control its own destiny.
The juice was flowing on Saturday. And it wasn’t just senior running back Dexter Williams.
With Book under center, the Irish finally look like they have the energy to match the expectations.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.