DelVecchio: While Irish offense still have major areas to improve in, Book showed significant signs of maturity under pressure
Grant DelVecchio | Saturday, November 2, 2019
“They had their character tested and they responded,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in his post-game press conference following Notre Dame’s 21-20 victory over visiting Virginia Tech. Following last week’s abysmal loss to rival Michigan, the Irish unsurprisingly had a target on their backs this week, more so than usual. This is especially true of senior quarterback Ian Book, whose 8-for-25 performance throwing the ball against the Wolverines sparked a debate about whether or not he was truly the man for the job under center.
Although it was not pretty by any means, there’s no denying that Book stepped up in a big way when his team needed him the most on Saturday. When you’re trailing by six points with one timeout, a little over three minutes remaining and 87 yards to go, the quarterback becomes the most essential piece of the victory puzzle. If he isn’t mentally or physically ready to make something happen, it’s unlikely the team will be either. After Saturday afternoon’s game, it became abundantly clear that Book is someone who his teammates and coaches both believe in and rely on in big moments, and he came through for the Irish in a big way. Book ultimately capped off an 18-play, 87-yard game-winning drive with a seven-yard designed rush towards the right side of the end zone to tie up the game with 29 seconds to go. Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer then solidified the win for Notre Dame with his extra point, which was only made possible by an excellent hold from freshman punter Jay Bramblett after the snap came in low.
Against the Hokies (5-3, 2-2 ACC), Book was far from perfect; throwing two interceptions and having a third one nullified by a roughing the passer penalty. It’s easy for everyone to look at his performance and point out all of the missed throws and holes in his game, but what I think people should take away from this game is just how resilient of a player Book is, and how he was able to respond to the mistakes he made both earlier on in this game and last week in the Big House.
“I’m just an extremely confident person but I also truly just believe in everyone on the offense and on our whole entire team. I knew we could do it. Last week was last week. We forgot about that and moved on. I’m just confident in all the guys; we work so hard every day and we’re playing for each other and that’s when you can make some pretty awesome things happen,” Book said post-game referencing how he and the team were able to rally together to get that last crucial score.
Book later when on to note, “When you come to Notre Dame to play quarterback, they’re going to love you when you win and they’re going to hate you when you lose; it’s a part of growing up and a part of being mature, but again I only care about the guys on the team, that’s it. It’s about blocking the noise and playing for each other.”
The belief in one another and relationship that the players have with each another as well as with Notre Dame football as a whole is really what separates the Irish from most programs, and this became increasingly evident in the way fellow teammates spoke on behalf of Book’s performance.
Graduate-student offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland — who made his first start of the season against Michigan, stepping in for injured senior Tommy Kraemer— commented, “I think [Ian] does a great job of just blocking [the noise] out, I think our whole program does a great job of blocking it out. It’s all about our team. … Ian knows he has a good support staff here and whenever he needs something he just leans on us and we have his back no matter what.”
Junior tight end Cole Kmet, who caught his fifth touchdown of the season in the Irish win, spoke very highly of Book’s presence as a leader for the team after the game.
“No matter what happens in the game good or bad, he just comes back, is a positive dude, and he knew was gonna lead us down the field and he did just that,” Kmet said.
The biggest surprise for me after the game was hearing Kelly say that the game-winning drive was the first time all year that Book scored during a two-minute drive, including practice. If that doesn’t tell you anything about the QB’s development, I’m not sure what will.
My point is that while it’s easy to tear down Book and some of his mistakes, today was an indicator of his maturity as a player and person overall, coming off of a week in which really nothing good was said about him.
With all of this being said, I’d like to end this piece with pointing out the fact that while Book’s growth is commendable and noteworthy, Notre Dame’s offensive struggles continued on Saturday. Entering the game, the Irish were a perfect 24-24 on scores inside the red zone, yet that was quickly erased by a turnover inside the twenty-yard line and a missed field goal against Virginia Tech. As aforementioned, Book threw two (could/should have been three) interceptions, the first one of which seemed as though it was for Hokies’ sophomore linebacker Dax Hollifield.
Moreover, on the ground, the Irish averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on 38 carries. The ineffectiveness that resulted in last week’s massive loss to Michigan seemed to be on display yet again against Virginia Tech, despite the Irish accumulating 243 yards in the first half alone (with only 14 points to show for it).
A win is a win, no matter the score. But, considering the Hokies least amount of points given up against a Power Five conference team this season was 35 against Miami (Fl.), the Irish’s 21 total points seem that much worse. Virginia Tech posted an awful six three-and-outs out of their first seven drives, but by the end of the game both teams finished with six total three-and-outs. If Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long want to return to the CFP and continue competing for a national championship, they are going have to figure out a way to keep their offense on the field for longer than they are. Specifically, Book underthrew a few passes that could have led to scores throughout the game. He was lucky enough to make up for it later on and get away with it, but underthrown balls aren’t going to cut it moving forward on either the collegiate or professional levels.
For me, Book was impressive in terms of his resiliency and ability to step up in a big moment. After all, big time players make big time plays, and the Irish will still be able to finish this year with 10 wins (which would make it three consecutive seasons with 10+ wins, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 1991-1993, with Lou Holtz at the helm). But, the offense still has a ton of work to do, both in terms of performance and play calling.