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Adams: Book salvaged Notre Dame’s season against Virginia Tech

| Friday, November 8, 2019

Three minutes and 22 seconds.

That’s how much time was left on the clock Saturday evening when No. 15 Notre Dame trailed Virginia Tech 20-14 at home. That’s how much time Notre Dame’s offense had to put together a go-ahead and possibly game-winning 87-yard touchdown drive. That’s how much time senior quarterback Ian Book had to, at least momentarily, silence the doubters.

Three minutes and 22 seconds to save Notre Dame’s season.

Fast forward 2:53 on the game clock, and Book is dancing into the endzone, tossing the football over his shoulder and putting his finger over his lips, shushing all those who ripped into the El Dorado Hills, Calif., native after an abysmal showing the prior week against No. 14 Michigan. Capped by an extra point by junior kicker Jonathan Doerer — thanks in large part to a clutch low-snap recovery by freshman punter and holder Jay Bramblett — the Irish (6-2) survived an upset bid to keep alive the their 16-game home winning streak, the third-longest in school history.

To be clear, an exciting finish to a game that shouldn’t have been close in the first place doesn’t atone for the Notre Dame offense’s mistakes in any game to date. In fact, in the six games against Power Five opponents prior to Saturday, dating back to the 30-3 Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson, Book threw for a combined five touchdown passes. Still, while many will (rightly) criticize Book and the offense for a lackluster performance against a Virginia Tech team that was blown out 45-10 by Duke, coincidentally Notre Dame’s next opponent, the way in which they managed to climb out of the hole they dug themselves into says something about the resiliency of the Irish and Book in particular.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Redshirt junior quarterback Ian Book takes a snap in last Saturday’s 21-20 win over Virginia Tech.

Book’s performance was nowhere near the upper echelon of quarterback play he was expected to have coming into this season. He threw for 336 yards and two touchdowns against the Hokies (5-3, 2-2 ACC), but completed only 29 of 53 passes (54.7%) and threw two interceptions, with a third interception called back on a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty. His first interception came in the red zone on an underthrown pass right to a Hokies linebacker, and the second came again on an underthrown pass into double coverage.

Book also failed to capitalize on two touchdown opportunities to junior tight end Cole Kmet, overthrowing him both times. What’s more, on the offense’s first drive of the fourth quarter, down 20-14, it took a targeting penalty and a questionable defensive pass interference penalty against the Hokies, plus the aforementioned roughing-the-passer call, to keep the drive alive, which ended in a missed Doerer field goal.

Even so, despite all the struggles the Irish offense endured, they strung together an 87-yard touchdown drive that included two fourth-down conversions and lifted Notre Dame over a scrappy Virginia Tech team. Had the Irish collapsed on that final drive as many, myself included, probably believed they would, this season could have spiraled into ugly territory as the team would begin to tear itself apart. However, Book managing to overcome his mistakes and successfully marching the offense downfield is cause for relief.

All due credit to senior wide receiver Chase Claypool for the incredible clutch plays he made while racking up eight receptions for 118 yards. Kudos as well to offensive linemen graduate student Trevor Ruhland and junior Josh Lugg, who stepped in admirably for injured starters junior Robert Hainsey and senior Tommy Kraemer. But it was Book who made the play to win the game, and that’s the way it needed to be.

Even throwing it to Claypool or Kmet for a touchdown pass to go up wouldn’t quell all the doubt, as it would likely be dismissed as either of them making yet another fantastic play. However, Book took the ball and put the team, and essentially the season, on his shoulders. After the offense gave up a 98-yard scoop-and-score from their own goal line to end the first half, Book still decided to tuck the ball and use his feet to get across that goal line. In doing so, he showed even after an enormous emotional letdown from the prior week, even when struggling with turnovers, even with his confidence dipping and even when the pressure is at its greatest, he had just enough to will his team to a win. JUST enough.

Ian Book is not a Top-10 quarterback, and his naming as a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award is absurd, but dang it, if he doesn’t lay his heart and soul on the line for his team. Notre Dame isn’t going to make the College Football Playoff, and Irish fans simply have to accept that. However, they should take some semblance of positivity from Saturday’s win.

That final drive was a season-salvaging drive. The kind of drive that brings a team back together after an identity-shaking loss. The kind of drive that reaffirms a team’s confidence in its coaches and its leader on offense. The kind of win that swings the momentum back in a team’s favor as it readies for a lengthy and physical November slate with matchups at Duke, home against Navy and Boston College and on the road against Stanford.

While none of those teams are world-beaters, a loss to the Hokies would provide great concern as to whether or not the Irish could defeat any of them. But Notre Dame persevered and showed that they wouldn’t go quietly when, to quote the great George Gipp, “the team [was] up against, when things [were] wrong and the breaks [were] beating the boys.” Notre Dame went out there and won just one for the players, the coaches, the students, alumni and subway alumni. And, in no small part, we have Ian Book to thank for it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden