Book, Irish hold off late Wildcat rally to stay perfect
Elizabeth Greason | Sunday, November 4, 2018
To get to 9-0, there will inevitably be some moments when fans hold their collective breath.
As the Irish attempted that feat Saturday against Northwestern, that statement held true, as the two teams went into halftime tied with one touchdown apiece. Then, after Notre Dame was able to create some breathing room in the second half, further miscues brought the Wildcats right back into the game.
But the most important play of the game came at the very end: the one that won it all.
The Wildcats (5-4, 5-1 Big Ten) had drawn the game in close, to within three points, and the Irish (9-0) needed to put points up and eat clock. And they did exactly that.
Notre Dame started deep in its own territory, but junior quarterback Ian Book connected with junior wide receiver Chase Claypool for a gain of 21 yards to give the offense some space to breath. A series of five-consecutive rushes, including a run of 19 yards that senior running back Dexter Williams was able to tear off, marched the Irish across midfield. A false start, however — Notre Dame’s third of the night — backed them up.
The Irish offense shook off the penalty, as it had become accustomed to doing over the course of the evening, and Book connected with senior wide receiver Miles Boykin for a 15-yard gain.
Two back-to-back three-yard gains courtesy of Williams brought Notre Dame to the 23-yard line, causing the Wildcats to call a timeout. When the two teams lined up again, Book took off for a 23-yard touchdown.
“I just had one guy to read, and was able to get a nice pull read,” Book said. “[Sophomore tight end] Cole [Kmet] did a good job, he didn’t even have to block anybody, I don’t think, because we were pulling. It was a great feeling. … There’s no better feeling [than seeing open field].”
Book’s running touchdown marked the final points of the game on a drive that ate over four minutes of clock, leaving the Wildcats with just under three minutes in a two-possession game, giving the Irish the insurance points they needed to seal the win and preserve their undefeated status.
But, there’s a reason that touchdown mattered so much. The two teams had gone into halftime tied at seven, after Williams scored on a one-yard run on Notre Dame’s second offensive drive — Book fumbled a read option on its first drive — and Wildcats senior quarterback Clayton Thorson was pushed over the goal line to tie the game in the second quarter.
The Irish struggled to get anything going in the first half, as Book passed for just over 100 yards in the first two quarters and completed less than half of his passes, compared to the over-70 percent he had completed in each previous game as a starter. They also only gathered 55 yards on the ground, compared to the 63 Northwestern was able to accumulate.
But, as one fan joked on Twitter, it was as if Ian Book ate a Snickers at halftime and came out a new quarterback in the third quarter.
“In the second half, they needed to play much better football, especially offensively, we had too many penalties, the turnover, obviously, a bit uncharacteristic for us, relative to the kind of game that we played all year, this was a little bit outside of the rails for us, in terms of how we played this year, but they cleaned it up in the second half and played pretty good football,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the game.
Notre Dame scored 17 unanswered points in the second half before Northwestern made a move.
A series of mid-range passes marched the Irish down the field. Book to Claypool for 13 yards; Book to Williams for 13 yards; Book to Claypool for nine yards; false start, the second of the night; Williams for eight yards; Book to sophomore wide receiver Michael Young for 13 yards got the Irish to the 29-yard line of Northwestern.
A few plays later, the ball found itself safely in the back corner of the end zone in Boykin’s hands, giving the Irish a 14-7 lead.
“Just being able to see Miles get a little bit of separation like that, you know he’s going to go make the play, and it just worked out perfectly, and I know Miles is going to go make those plays,” Book said.
On their next possession, the Irish found themselves pinned deep in their own territory at the 2-yard line. That wasn’t an issue for Book, as on second-and-10 he launched a 31-yard deep ball to Claypool, giving the Irish plenty of room to work with.
The Irish went on the run to Williams for a gain of six, and then, after a no-gain play, Book went downfield to Claypool again for 14 yards, followed quickly by a 47-yard bomb to Young, to put the Irish up 21-7.
A 47-yard field goal courtesy of senior kicker Justin Yoon gave the Irish a 17-point lead. A lead that would evaporate much more quickly than it appeared.
An illegal formation penalty on the kickoff moved the Wildcats up to the 30-yard line, and within three plays, they were on the Irish side of the field.
After the game, Irish junior cornerback Julian Love said the squad really only gave up one big pass play on the day. And that play resulted in the touchdown that allowed Northwestern to score for the first time since the second quarter, as Thorson connected with sophomore receiver Riley Lees to make the score 24-14.
With 8:56 left in the game and a still with a comfortable lead, the Irish were forced to punt.
That’s when things went wrong. Redshirt-freshman Cameron Ruiz blocked the punt and recovered at the Notre Dame 17. And while it took them a few plays, the Wildcats found the end zone in under two minutes, cutting the lead to just three points.
Notre Dame’s special teams unit has struggled over the course of the season and Kelly was displeased with the squad’s mistakes in the game.
“We just make some silly mistakes … you can’t have a blocked punt,” he said. “We’ve got a guy that’s one of our best players in that position [in graduate student punter Tyler Newsome], so we just have to be better with attention to detail. We’re putting our best players on the field, and they’ve got to be better every single snap.”
Which is why that last Ian Book touchdown, that 23-yard run, mattered so much for Notre Dame.
“We certainly had held that play for an opportunity to end the game, it was an unbalanced situation, we got the numbers the way we wanted it, we could’ve handed it off if they didn’t kick the front, they kicked it, we got a good look, we brought the tight end back around, we felt like we would be able to pick up the first down,” Kelly said of the play. “We were going to run the football in that situation regardless, but it was just something that we had held on to and executed well. … We had a pretty good film. It’s one of those plays where you’re holding [it], and that was the right time for us.”
The Wildcats had all the momentum working in their favor in the fourth quarter and seven minutes of clock to work with and the Irish undeniably needed to score. Had they not, that 9-0 record might not still be intact heading into Week 10.
But Claypool cautioned against the team getting ahead of itself at this point in the season.
“We’ve got to stay humble. Last year around this time, the rankings came out and then Miami happened,” he said. “So I think that’s why were coming out to these games and keeping our focus right, because you never know who can beat you. You’ve got to keep working on it.”