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Irish, Book capture third-straight double-digit win season

| Friday, May 15, 2020

The Irish faithful had more to smile about at the beginning of 2020 than they did at the outset of 2019, with the Notre Dame football team using a statement bowl game victory to put an exclamation mark on a 10-win season. Led by the return of senior Ian Book, the first program quarterback to be named captain since Jimmy Clausen in 2009, the Irish captured their third-straight season with double-digit victories. Though Notre Dame missed out on the New Year’s Six, the team averaged 431.2 yards of offense and 36.8 points per game, sending 12 players to the NFL, six through the draft and six as undrafted free-agents. As in 2019, the Irish were undefeated in Notre Dame Stadium in 2020.

Riding on the coattails of a perfect regular season in 2019 and the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance, rising senior linebacker Drew White cited the lessons learned in previous seasons as the foundations for a successful year in 2020.

“We used all those questions that people had [during the offseason] as motivation to come out for the 2020 season flying, maintaining the standard,” White said. “We just wanted to live up to that standard and not just be at that threshold but really … to push past it.”

And start the season flying the Irish did, ranking No. 9 and capturing statement wins over Louisville and New Mexico by a combined margin of victory of 70 points. Book was tasked with the starting job from the beginning, falling back into old form by targeting senior receiver Chase Claypool and passing off the rock to senior running back Tony Jones Jr. With two victories under its belt, Notre Dame headed south for the season’s first test, facing No. 3 Georgia in a gripping rematch of 2017’s crushing one-point Irish loss.

Tasked with stopping a ground game lead by junior running back D’Andre Swift and protected by an offensive line with an average weight heavier than that of most NFL teams, Notre Dame put up a tough fight before ultimately faltering down the stretch. Both teams were kept scoreless in the first quarter, but in the second, it was the Irish who made the first move as junior tight end Cole Kmet brought home a lofted pass from Book to nab the game’s first touchdown. The Bulldogs responded on the following drive as Swift pushed for three yards into the end zone, but the Irish didn’t fall behind for long, taking the lead again as the half expired on a 27-yard field goal courtesy of junior Jon Doerer.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish junior tight end Cole Kmet dives for the end zone during Notre Dame’s 52-0 victory over Bowling Green on Oct. 5 at Notre Dame Stadium. Kmet was the first Irish player selected in the NFL Draft in 2020, going 43rd overall to his hometown Chicago Bears.

After the half, Georgia took advantage of a Notre Dame interception, using the found possession to tie it up at 10. The Bulldogs went on to score 13 more unanswered points to put the Irish on the wrong side of a 23-10 score with just about four minutes remaining. Notre Dame was able to find the points once more and force a Georgia three-and-out to bring it to 23-17, but Book and Claypool couldn’t connect on the final Irish drive, leaving the Bulldogs with the win.

“The week leading up to Georgia, we had a lot of motivation to come out swinging,” linebacker White said. “There were a lot of reports saying that D’Andre Swift and the Georgia offense with the big O-Line was going to come and run it down our throat. We used that as motivation, and we used it for our defense as a whole to come out. Even after the game, I thought we played well, and I thought we really displayed the traits that we were looking for, but it was almost a still a slap in the face when people said it was a good try. We were so close. We went into the game expecting to win and dominate. So, it sprung us forward to the rest of the season and how we wanted to face our opponents.”

After the loss, the Irish dropped three spots to No. 10 in the AP Poll but clawed up one spot to No. 9 once more after a 35-20 win over then-No. 18 Virginia, a 52-0 shutout of Bowling Green and a slim 30-27 victory over rival USC.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish senior wide receiver Chase Claypool fights through a tackle during Notre Dame’s 52-0 victory over Bowling Green on Oct. 5 at Notre Dame Stadium. Claypool was the second Notre Dame player drafted this season after Kmet, going 49th overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Headed into another rivalry game, Notre Dame was poised to use a victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor to renew playoff optimism, but hopes were dashed from the beginning as a torrential downpour and failure to take advantage of Wolverine mistakes spelled disaster for the Irish.

Notre Dame didn’t make it onto the board until halfway through the third quarter, finally offering a response to Michigan’s 17-straight points. The Irish momentum didn’t last for long, however, as the Wolverines scored on both the next drive and three of the four that followed. Second-string, sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec picked up another Notre Dame touchdown during his team’s final possession, but it was of no use as Michigan protected home turf with a fashionable win, 45-14.

“After the tough Michigan loss, our defense was really born in a sense that in the second half of the season, we played great football,” White said. “Everybody on every level really clicked together. I think we definitely found momentum. If you just look at it holistically, I would say after that Michigan loss, the defense really found itself.”

Notre Dame almost faltered on the rebound, however, barely slipping past Virginia Tech in their next game. Trailing for the entirety of the third quarter and the majority of the fourth, the Irish put together an 87-yard drive that ended with Book dashing down the middle and curling outside for a seven-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds remaining to secure the 21-20 win.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Ian Book (left) hand the ball off to senior running back Ton Jones Jr. (right) during Notre Dame’s 52-20 win over Navy on Nov. 16 at Notre Dame Stadium. Book will be returning for a fifth-year with Irish to presumably start his second full year under center.

The Irish kept their foot on the gas for the remainder of the season, winning the next four regular season games by an average of 29 points: Duke 38-7, Navy 52-20, Boston College 40-7 and Stanford 45-24. However, the two losses and lack of schedule strength proved too much to overcome in the hopes of gaining a spot in the playoff conversation, or even a New Year’s Six bowl, and Notre Dame instead landed a spot in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Florida, against Iowa State. The Irish led throughout the entirety of their 33-9 rout of the Cyclones, with Book using a 71% completion clip to help his team end 2020 better than they started it.

Looking ahead to 2020-2021, Book will return to use his fourth and final year of eligibility, despite noticeable absences in his receiving corps and secondary as a result of the 2020 NFL draft. Notre Dame is slated to start the season in Dublin, Ireland, with a marquee Shamrock Series matchup against Navy, but the status of the game remains uncertain amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Other notable matchups on the Irish schedule will be a meeting with Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, at the beginning of October and a home showdown with Clemson Nov. 7.

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