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Despite the doubters, Book becomes winningest QB in program history

| Sunday, December 6, 2020

Over his career for one of college football’s most historic programs, Notre Dame graduate student quarterback Ian Book has amassed 9,998 total yards and 88 total touchdowns — all while throwing just 19 interceptions — but another number dominated the discourse before, during and after the Irish’s senior-day victory over Syracuse.

With the 45-21 win in his final home game Saturday, Book improved to 30-3 as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, passing Brady Quinn, Ron Powlus and Tom Clements to become the all-time winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history. 

The significance of this achievement is certainly not lost on head coach Brian Kelly. On SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt late Tuesday night, Kelly went to Shakespearean lengths to pay tribute to his starting quarterback. 

When Van Pelt asked Kelly to describe what Book has been for the program, Kelly said the two-year captain is “a champion. A guy that has taken the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune and not being given the credit that he has rightfully deserved and that he’s going to earn on Saturday as the all-time winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history. That’s an incredible feat for all the great players that have played here at Notre Dame. He’s done it with the scrutiny, he’s done it with unfair criticism and he’s done it with class and dignity all the way.”

Kelly went on to discuss Book’s contributions to the football team during his time at Notre Dame.

“I love Ian Book,” Kelly said. “I love what he represents and what he stands for and how he’s handled himself throughout his time here at Notre Dame. We are a better football program because of his presence at Notre Dame.”

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book surveys the field before taking the snap during Notre Dame’s 45-21 Senior Day win over Syracuse on Dec. 5. With the win Book is now the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history with a record of 30-3. He was previously tied with Brady Quinn, Tom Clements and Ron Powlus.

Kelly has habitually referred to Book as “a winner,” especially when faced with questions about Book as a player who has, at times, not lived up to expectations. And Book can now point to his clinching of a second undefeated regular season in his three years as the starter in South Bend as evidence that he has done more than enough to earn that title.

The victory over Syracuse extended the Irish’s win streak to 16 games — the longest active streak in the country — and was Notre Dame’s 24th straight win at home, the longest streak in program history since 1942-1950.

When it comes to individual records, Book is currently second in the Notre Dame record books in pass yards, passing touchdowns and quarterback rushing yards. His .909 winning percentage as a starting quarterback for the Irish only trails that of 1947 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack. 

On NBC’s national broadcast, sideline reporter Kathryn Tapper said even Book’s parents admitted before the game that their son’s historic success has exceeded their own expectations for the three-star recruit out of Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, CA. 

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book keeps it himself for a first down during Notre Dame’s 45-21 win over Syracuse on Dec. 5. Book has steadily improved his play throughout the season and is making a push for some hardware as a Maxwell Award finalist and even a dark horse Heisman contender.

Despite racking up wins as a starter, Book has consistently been accused of lacking sufficient ability to lead a team hoping to contend for a national championship. But he’s dealt with substantial doubt even since his days as a recruit.  

Book decommitted from his only Power-5 scholarship offer, Washington State, to attend Notre Dame. The impressive offensive blitz against Syracuse at the end of what was previously an extremely rocky first half for the Irish, despite a promising opening drive, in many ways reflected the arc of Book’s career. 

The 6-foot Book burst onto the scene after permanently replacing fellow dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush early in the 2018 season en route to Brian Kelly’s second undefeated regular season and Notre Dame’s first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff, but an embarrassing offensive display in the 30-3 Cotton Bowl defeat to Clemson precipitated the intense scrutiny Book has faced throughout his final two years in South Bend. 

Despite winning 11 games and throwing for almost 300 yards in a six-point loss at then-No. 3 Georgia in 2019, Book was a dismal 8/25 for 73 yards in the disastrous loss at Michigan. Underwhelming performances early this season against Duke and Louisville caused pressure to mount.

Book put the negative narratives to rest, however, with an excellent second half of the season, especially against marquee opponents. His clutch play in the double overtime win vs. then-No. 1 Clemson and multiple highlight-reel plays vs. then-No. 19 North Carolina resulted in national acclaim. 

Book was named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award, given to the best player in college football, last Sunday. His 86.0 total quarterback rating (QBR) is currently seventh in the country, according to ESPN. 

After the Syracuse win, Book was interviewed by Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbsreit on ABC during Saturday night’s Clemson-Virginia Tech game. Book said the Irish have shown tremendous resolve since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and emphasized how enjoyable it is to take the field with this Notre Dame team. 

“It’s just a fun team to play with,” he said. “[The team has] a lot of grit and [is] never shying away, and [it’s] just so much fun out there on the field. Everyone’s laughing, having a good time. [It’s] just exciting to be out there with them.” 

Book and the offense’s first-half performance against Syracuse was perhaps a microcosm of Book’s occasionally uneven career that is becoming increasingly defined by an impressive finish. 

With his team trailing 7-3 late in the 2nd quarter, Book provided the Irish with a much-needed spark using his often-underrated but perhaps most potent weapon: his legs. The Notre Dame offense stagnated after a field-goal drive to open up the game, but Book’s 28-yard touchdown run with 3:18 to go in the second quarter sparked a three-touchdown explosion to finish the half. Scoring deliveries on a 21-yard pass to graduate student wideout and Book’s roommate, Javon McKinley, following a Syracuse fumble and another pass to McKinley on a 28-yard jump ball with six seconds to play in the half put the Irish in control. 

Sophomore Kyren Williams, Notre Dame’s No.1 running back, admitted postgame that he is often in awe of Book’s natural playmaking ability. 

“He leaves you out on the field thinking because I know I’m in pass [protection], and then I see Ian running down the field 15 yards and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how he just did that, but I’m gonna go block,’” Williams said. “But it’s just things like that. And then he throws dimes. Every throw is a dime. So it’s just crazy to see what Ian is doing. I know he’s got a lot more left in him. I know he hasn’t even shown his best yet.“

Book also had to overcome a difficult start to the third quarter, turning the ball over on each of Notre Dame first two possessions. Book fumbled an exchange with converted center Josh Lugg on the Irish’s first offensive snap of the half before throwing just his second interception of the season on the following possession. Last time out against North Carolina, Book broke Brady Quinn’s record of 226 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. 

Book would again recover, however, by flexing his credentials both on the ground and through the air. After another Syracuse fumble immediately following the interception, Book capped a 53-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown run before tossing a third touchdown pass to Javon McKinley to put the Irish up by 24. 

Book finished 24-37 for 285 yards passing. He rushed for an additional 53 yards and accounted for five touchdowns on the day. Kelly performed some simple arithmetic postgame when asked about Book’s impact. 

“Well, he accounted for five touchdowns,” he said. “So five times six [is] 30 points. If he could kick, we should try to work on getting him to be a kicker, too.”

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book jukes a defender and dives for the end zone for the first Irish score of the game during Notre Dame’s 45-21 win over Syracuse on Dec. 5. Book would finish the Senior Day win with five total touchdowns, bringing his career totals to 72 passing and 16 rushing. He is second all-time in Notre Dame history in both passing yards and passing touchdowns and tied for fourth in rushing scores by a quarterback.

Kelly also lauded Book’s accountability and desire to improve. 

“He just continues to get better each and every week,” he said. “He’ll probably tell you it wasn’t his A-game. It was probably, you know, a game where he played good. He wants to play better, but that’s the great part about him. He hasn’t played his best game yet in his eyes, but he’s still accounted for five touchdowns and threw some great balls.”

Perhaps even more impressive is the respect Book has also clearly earned from NBC color commentator and former Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, who compared Book to both Irish and San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana and 2018 NFL MVP and Super Bowl winner Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs during the national broadcast. 

Earlier in the year, Book also passed his offensive coordinator, 28-year-old Tommy Rees, on the Notre Dame quarterback win charts. When ESPN’s Holly Rowe recently interviewed Book, he credited Rees for helping him learn how to study opposing defenses. 

“That’s where Coach Rees has just helped me a ton,” Book said. “It’s fun. It’s like a chess match. You’re kind of like, ‘What do they do and why do they do it, and why are we going to do what we want to do to attack certain spots that we see are open.’”

Book also explained what he sees and feels when the preparation pays off on the field. 

“You know you’ve put in the right work and the right preparation and just to have it work out like that, there are plays that kind of feel like slow motion,” he said. “It’s fun to talk about.”

Despite being a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award and remaining a contender for several awards for the best quarterback in college football, Book has largely not featured in the mainstream conversation surrounding the Heisman Trophy. Book told Rowe that the lack of recognition only provides additional motivation as the Irish head into the postseason seeking to claim their first-ever conference title and end Notre Dame’s 32-year national championship drought. 

“It’s just been a dream of mine to play college football and to be in a Heisman race and win a national championship,” Book said. “It’s all just been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. I’m just going to keep working. I think it’ll take care of itself. It’s just a chip on my shoulder to make me work harder. I’m confident in my abilities and I think I can compete with the best of the best.”

Though Book has played his final snap in Notre Dame Stadium, Irish fans will be hoping he is not done rewriting Notre Dame’s record books in terms of the only statistic that really matters: the win column.

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