In what was the most statistically dominant of the 134 games Brian Kelly has coached at Notre Dame, it was equally significant Saturday that he didn’t have to run quarterback Ian Book’s final stats through the spin cycle during his postgame Zoom conference.
Whether it’s a quantum leap that’s sustainable is a question for another day. But Book’s contributions in No. 3 Notre Dame’s 45-3 conquest of Pitt, Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, were a key component in the Irish finally looking like a team building real momentum— instead of the rhetorical kind — toward matching its lofty aspirations.
Not only did the grad senior produce his second-best pass-efficiency rating (173.7) against a Power 5 team since becoming a full-time starter four games into the 2018 season, he did it against the nation’s No. 7 team in total defense.
And this, on a day when his fastest receiver, Braden Lenzy, was targeted four times without a reception before limping off with another hamstring injury, and ND’s potentially most dynamic offensive player, Kevin Austin, was revealed to have rebroken his left foot.
The next pass the 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior will catch will presumably come from Brendon Clark, Drew Pyne or incoming freshman Tyler Buchner in spring practice next March.
Clark and Pyne actually got some work late in the game Saturday after Book departed with a line of 16-of-30 for a season high 312 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against a team that ranked third nationally in forcing them. He also netted 40 rushing yards on eight carries against the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense.
The defense complemented Book’s elevated performance by smothering Pitt (3-4, 2-4 ACC) to the tune of 162 total yards, the fewest compiled against the Irish in Kelly’s 11 seasons, and picked off three passes from fill-in starting QB Joey Yellen — one each by cornerback Nick McCloud, rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and linebacker Bo Bauer.
Sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey added a special teams gem, blocking a Pitt punt late in the first half — the second of his career — and scooping it up in the end zone for a touchdown.
“They're the No. 3 team in the country. They played like it,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi offered. “They're as good a football team I have seen walk on the field in the last six years.”
For the record, that inventory includes both the 2016 and 2018 Clemson national championship teams.
Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) gets the 2020 version of Clemson (6-0, 5-0 ACC), the favorite to win this season’s national title, Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium, a game Kelly actually encouraged his team to think about this week.
“It’s risky, right?” he said. “In some instances, people would say, ‘Well you’re looking ahead.’ Well, we are looking ahead a little bit. We needed to get this football team to understand that they are really good and we needed to up our compete level in all three phases. We did that today.
“Play fearless. Attack all the time. Because we’re going to need to look like this down the road if you want to fulfill any of our goals. So it was really less about who we were playing and more about how we played. And that’s how we went about it.”
Book’s process, though, had more layers to it.
His 104.76 rating in a 12-7 escape over Louisville the previous Saturday was the fourth-worst of his career and dropped him to 44th nationally in pass efficiency among 71 QBs with enough games and attempts to qualify.
No team has won a national championship in the BCS/Playoff Era (1998-present) with a team efficiency rating of worse than 37th, and that’s with well over 100 QBs calculated into the final rankings.
The only team to reach the national title game with an efficiency placement lower than Book’s 44th coming into the game was the 2012 Notre Dame team (74th) that got blown up by Alabama.
“Last Saturday night we were hanging out after the game and I could just see the frustration on his (Book’s) face,” said Northwestern wide receiver transfer Ben Skowronek, who was awarded the game ball after the Pitt game.
“On Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, he came in locked in every single day. Just doing the extra things. Studying extra film. Communicating more. He was so locked in this week.
“It obviously paid off for him. He had a hell of a game. I’m just happy for him. He was very unhappy last week. All the fruits of his labor paid off this week. I can’t wait to play with him moving forward. He’s a hell of a football player, and he’s a winner.”
Skowronek helped the Irish make big plays down the field Saturday that had been lacking in Book’s repertoire this season and for the better part of his career.
He hauled in a 34-yard scoring pass-and-run to cap ND’s first possession at the 10:08 mark of the first quarter and a 73-yard scoring play on third-and-14 early in the second quarter in which he looked absolutely Jeff Samardzija-esque.
The 6-3, 224-pounder leaped to pluck the ball out of the air while well defended, then outsprinted the Pitt defense to the end zone for a 14-3 Irish lead.
So with 10:37 left before the half, Skowronek had matched ND’s total of TD receptions by its wide receiver corp for the entire season.
“It was just a simple go route,” he said. “I had a good feeling Ian was going to come to me on that play. It really just comes down to winning your one-on-one matchup and making a play.
“Being that reliable target for him is what I want to be and helping the team win games.”
Freshman tight end Michael Mayer also fit that description on Saturday, with a team-high five catches for 73 yards and a TD.
Five different ND players had at least one pass play of 20 yards or more from Book — Avery Davis, Kyren Williams and Javon McKinley in addition to Mayer and Skowronek.
Kelly seemed confident after the game that he won’t have to reach down the depth chart for some fresh receiver options with Austin out, and he seemed optimistic that Lenzy’s hamstring issue wasn’t too serious.
The Irish, with the nation’s longest active win streak at 11 games, will get to test out whether Kelly’s right about the wide receiver room next Saturday in Atlanta against a Georgia Tech team that former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec threw for 145 yards against and ran for 94 Saturday in a 48-27 Boston College victory.
“Joe (Wilkins) is a real good player. He’ll just get more reps,” Kelly said of the Irish receivers. “Lawrence Keys will be back, and he saw a little bit of time (Saturday). We’re in good shape there. I feel really good about the group we have. Kyren Williams is a great weapon for us as well, so we feel like there’s plenty of options out there for us.”
Even more impressive than Book’s bottom line Saturday was the context. Against the nation’s No. 1 run defense playing essentially a nine-man box, so much more of the Irish offensive game plan had to be on his right shoulder on Saturday.
Book’s pattern in such games has been some of the biggest struggles in his career.
But Saturday, he scrambled away from the nation’s No. 2 sacking team, yielding only five yards on one sack. And the Irish were 9-of-13 in third-down conversions when Book turned the game over to Clark late in the third quarter with ND leading 45-3.
It was just the third time in the last 13 meetings between the two teams that the game wasn’t decided by single digits, and it was the most lopsided game in the series since Lou Holtz’s last Irish team routed the Panthers 60-6 in 1996.
“We needed to play fearless,” Kelly said. “We needed to play with great energy. And we needed playmakers. And we saw all those three things today.
“This is a very good glimpse of what this football team is capable of.”