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Irish complete second 12-0 season under Kelly

| Wednesday, December 5, 2018

It wasn’t always pretty. For every blowout win over Virginia Tech on the road there was a dropped pass on 4th down by Vanderbilt that nearly set the Irish on the path toward another sub-par season. Yet, just over four months later, the Irish have earned themselves a ticket to the College Football Playoff, having run the table through the regular season and setting themselves up to face off against Clemson for the Cotton Bowl Classic on Dec. 29.

For head coach Brian Kelly, this patience and trust in the team’s mission is a sign of their maturity.

“They took a process that requires delayed gratification,” Kelly said. “In a world where everybody wants it right now, they put aside a lot of those things that require immediate gratification and put it aside and said: I’ll wait for that, right. I’ll put that aside. … That’s a sense of accomplishment and a sense of completion for me that we have a group that’s special that can do that.”

Kelly also recognized this season’s success as a team unit, with everyone committed to excellence.

“Our staff has done an incredible job,” Kelly said. “Our players certainly deserve all the credit. Each and every week they had to perform at a high level to get this point in winning all their games. As I told them, it really doesn’t matter about what people think or say. It hasn’t been that case all the year.”

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish senior linebacker Te’von Coney helps make a tackle during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Michigan on Sep. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Kelly and his staff set expectations high early, when then-No. 12 Notre Dame opened its season under the bright lights against then-No. 14 Michigan to a stadium decked out in green with College GameDay just outside the gates. Missing senior running back Dexter Williams for the first four games of the season, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush relied heavily on the run game, turning to sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong, who scored two touchdowns in his collegiate debut to help propel the Irish to an early 21-3 lead. Although a kickoff returned for a touchdown in the final minutes of the first half sparked some momentum for Michigan (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten), they were unable to translate this to the score board until the final minutes of the game when they cut the Notre Dame lead to one touchdown. The Irish (12-0) managed to hold on for a 24-17 win.

The next two weeks demonstrated more of the same flashy offense that seemed to crumble in the second half. Hosting Ball State and Vanderbilt, Wimbush and the defensive unit managed to score on the opening drive of both games but struggled to maintain distance, squeaking out eight and five-point wins, respectively.

Despite a 3-0 start, many questions remained about the efficiency of the offense, with the defense having needed to step up in the fourth quarter of all three games. In the first road game of the season, junior quarterback Ian Book replaced Wimbush and stepped into at the starting position, leading the Irish to a dominant 56-27 win. This was the second-career start for Book, as he filled in for Wimbush last season against North Carolina. His 325 passing yards against the Demon Deacons (6-6, 3-5 ACC) indicated a switch in the offensive scheme, more in line with offensive coordinator Chip Long’s vision. Book added another 43 yards on the ground, surprising many with his dual-threat ability from the pocket.

Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Ian Book scrambles out of the pocket during Notre Dame’s 56-27 win over Wake Forest on Sep. 22 at BB&T Field.

Although the season looked promising with two quality options leading the offense, the first real test for Book came on Sept. 29, when the Irish returned home to take on Stanford in the first top-10 matchup in Notre Dame Stadium since the infamous “Bush Push” game against USC in 2005.

The return of Williams came in stellar fashion, as the senior took his first carry of the season 45 yards into the end zone to put the Irish on the board. Notre Dame continued to move the ball, but the Cardinal (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) managed to match their offensive efforts, keeping the score close midway through the fourth quarter. An eight-yard touchdown catch by senior wide receiver Miles Boykin to put the Irish up 31-17 was immediately followed by an interception by senior linebacker Te’von Coney, bringing out the Notre Dame offense and setting them up to put the last nail in the Stanford coffin.

On the first snap of the ensuing drive, Book rolled out and then looked back to a wide-open Alizé Mack. The senior tight end scored on a 35-yard pass to put the Irish up 21 and solidify their 38-17 win.

However surprised fans found themselves by Book’s composure, his teammates knew the junior was ready for the spotlight.

“He’s calm all the time, level headed guy no matter what’s happening out there on the football field,” graduate student offensive lineman Sam Mustipher said. “That’s a testament to the preparation he put in well beyond the time his name was called to go in the game this year.”

That calm composure proved crucial when the Irish traveled to Blacksburg, Virginia, in Week 6 of the season. In a hostile environment, Book led the team over a lockdown Hokies defense 45-23.

Just before the bye week, Notre Dame hosted Pittsburgh, notorious for upsetting college football elites. The Panthers (7-6, 6-2 ACC) nearly lived up to their reputation, giving the Irish their first deficit at home and only the second all season. A Book-to-Boykin touchdown midway through the fourth quarter finally gave Notre Dame the lead as they held on to secure a 19-14 win.

With two weeks of rest under their belt, the Irish returned to play the last week of October, set to start one of the toughest travel schedules in college football. First, they handled Navy, beating the Midshipmen (3-9, 2-6 AAC) 44-22 in San Diego. Next, they returned close to home to take on a rising Northwestern team, beating the Wildcats (8-5, 8-1 Big Ten) 21-31 behind a career high 56 rushing yards by Book.

Kelly and his team then returned home to take on Florida State, honoring the seniors in their final home game. With Book being announced out against the Seminoles due to a rib and back injury, Wimbush stepped in, making his first appearance for the Irish in over a month, to a booming stadium. Jumping out to a 32-6 lead at halftime, the Irish settled in, closing out their home season with a 42-13 win, highlighted by the 365 rushing yards Notre Dame posted.

This second half of the season stretch came to embody the attitude of this team — taking on hostile environments and persevering with different units and individuals stepping up each week. Perhaps no one exhibited this toughness better than graduate student linebacker Drue Tranquill. The two-time Notre Dame captain played with a broken hand suffered against Stanford before experiencing another setback against Navy, leaving the game with a high ankle sprain. Despite the physical hits he’s taken this season, he’s continued to put everything on the line for his school and teammates.

“Drue is as tough as they get. … We were preparing for Northwestern, and Drue kind of was getting reps, but we were still trying to figure out if he was 100 percent,” junior cornerback Julian Love said. “And I don’t know what it was, like second, maybe third quarter, I’m lining up, getting a call and I look over at who’s relaying the call to me, and it’s Drue. The whole game it was Drue, and no one informed me. … I’m with it. We’re going to go to battle. … And that’s just kind of the mindset that Drue has and how he’s kind of shaped the mindset of this team, that we’re in it together. He’s not out there for himself, but for the betterment of this team.”

With the College Football Playoff in sight, the Irish took off on their final leg of travel. First, they took off for the Shamrock Series, set to face Syracuse, a team that had built itself a surprisingly strong season and which entered Yankee Stadium ranked 12th. With Book back in the driver’s seat, the Irish jumped out to a 10-0 lead before Orange starting quarterback Eric Dungey left the game with an upper-body injury. The Irish continued to impose their will, nearly forcing a shutout, before the Orange (9-3, 6-2 ACC) got on the board in the final seconds with a field goal. The 36-3 win was highlighted by the secondary, which made three interceptions, including two by junior safety Alohi Gilman, the first of his career with the Irish.

Finally, Notre Dame made its biennial trip to the Coliseum in Los Angeles to take on USC and close out the regular season. What was expected to be one of their more favored matchups, proved to be a battle. The Trojan freshman duo of quarterback JT Daniels and receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown marched its way past the Notre Dame secondary with ease, earning them a 10-0 lead, before senior receiver Chris Finke caught a touchdown pass to cut the lead to three at the end of the half. The experience of the Irish showed in the second half as they found their stride, taking a 14-point lead. Despite a late USC touchdown, Notre Dame held on to escape with the 24-17 win and essentially punch their ticket to the College Football Playoff.

After initially struggling to find his rhythm, Book settled in and ultimately threw for a career-high 352 yards. Kelly is confident that this experience will make Book better going forward, as he prepares for the biggest game of his career.

“Every game presents itself in a different fashion. That was his first rivalry game against, you know, the Trojan helmet and the mystique of the Coliseum, and it may not be big for you because you’ve been to the Coliseum, many times and when you walk in there that’s nothing to you,” Kelly said. “That’s the first time he’s been in that stadium. That’s the first time he’s played in that game. That’s different for a 20-year-old.”

Even after running the table, the Irish still faced questions of legitimacy, centered around strength of schedule, too many too-close-for-comfort wins and a lack of conference championship affirmation. But this team is determined to block those voices out and focus on one date — Dec. 29.

“I mean, I don’t really care about anybody’s opinion outside of this building, and I don’t think the rest of this team does either,” Mustipher said. “That’s how we’ve done it all year. We’ve prepared the exact same way, and we’ve kept our nose focused on what we needed to be focused on. We did what we’ve had to do when there are opponents in front of us, and I’ve voiced that to the rest of the team as well.”

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