A break was coming, that much they did know.
In today’s endless cycle of college football cancelations and postponements and uncertainties, the next week and the next game are anything but guaranteed. But play one more game and second-ranked Notre Dame could kind of unplug from it all. Well, as best as 2020 allows. After (class) tests, there still would be (COVID) tests. A few fewer practices, a weekend off and no more classes to Zoom. As the schedule had it, final exams would coincide with the team’s second bye week. Sweet.
First, the Irish needed to travel out to New England and take care of Boston College and old buddy Phil Jurkovec. Only then could they offer up an exhale. Yeah, they made it this far.
If the previous week’s epic double-overtime victory over previously unbeaten and top-ranked Clemson was a prove-it moment for quarterback Ian Book and coach Brian Kelly and the rest of the Irish who were dismissed back in that 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal, then Saturday was about something else.
It was about poise. It was about purpose. It was about handling business like a veteran team that knows how it should handle business. No slippage. No sluggishness (OK, maybe just a little of both). But above all, no stumble. Go out and play. Go out and win.
At times, everyone Irish looked like they were on fumes. Tired from the last week, tired from the past two months. Even Kelly seemed a bit worn down after win No. 100 at Notre Dame.
Still, there was no letdown or loss. Notre Dame moved to 8-0 overall, 7-0 and first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with the 45-31 victory. That makes it 14 in a row since the Irish last lost, including the last six (with one bowl game) away from home. Notre Dame was the only team in the Associated Press top five to play Saturday. It showed like one of the nation’s elite with the 45 points, the 561 total yards of offense, the seven-of-eight scores in the red zone and the average of 7.6 yards per play, the 85 rushing yards allowed and the 4-of-11 allowed on third down.
After the latest Irish statement, Kelly needed a minute during his post-game presser to think of an opening one.
“We’re very difficult to defend right now,” he said. “This bye week’s coming at a good time for us.”
Notre Dame was all business Saturday, just as it was in previous road swings through Pittsburgh and Atlanta. In each of the three, the Irish never were pressed after intermission. Slip into autopilot and enjoy the ride. This one was more of a grind, but the Irish fought through it to make it again look easy.
It was the second straight week and third in the last four that Notre Dame has scored at least 45 points. It was the third road game the Irish have won this season, all by an average of 24.6 points. That right there is CFP worthy, even with little left in the tank.
“Our team was tired tonight,” Kelly said. “You could see.”
Didn’t much matter. Against this Notre Dame team, another unranked and overmatched team had only a certain number of minutes in a game to feel good about itself. To feel like they might have a chance. That Book’s not all that good. Or that the offensive line's not that mammoth. Or that the receivers aren’t really playmakers. Reality then sets in and the other guys realize that, whoa, the Irish have the players and the pieces and the playmakers.
Everything then tilts the other direction and never again swings back the other way. Happened in Pittsburgh. Happened in Atlanta. Happened in The Heights.
On Saturday, that timeframe was about 16 minutes. Jurkovec got out in space and made some plays. Boston College took some chances. Hit on a few, too. Notre Dame looked a little lethargic having to go deep into the pervious Saturday night to beat Clemson. Then it all shifted. Book directed a couple scoring drives (five scores on seven first-half possessions), the defense found its collective footing and before you know it, it’s all over except the clock running down.
The obvious angle Saturday was Jurkovec, who went from contemplating giving up the position, and even the game, during his cup of coffee in South Bend. ABC apparently went so far as to say that one reason Jurkovec was in maroon and white instead of blue and gold was that he felt he never received what he believed was a fair chance at quarterback.
Huh? Does he think they burned that 2019 spring game tape inside the Gug? How about that first practice video from Culver Academy that 2019 preseason? As long as Book was around, Jurkovec wasn’t going to play. Not last year. Not this year.
Especially not after the last two weeks.
“When your quarterback is playing at a high level, it gives you a great chance to be a championship-level caliber football team,” Kelly said of Book. “Probably, to a large degree, the difference in the game.”
One quarterback showed why he was going to 28-3 as a starter. Book completed 20 of his 27 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating of 198.8 was the highest in his career against a power-five program. He’s been at a different level (a championship one) the last two weeks, to the point where ABC even mention the “H” word (whispers…Heisman) toward the end of the telecast.
“I feel good as an offense as a whole; we’re starting to gel,” Book said. “It’s just happening at the right time.”
The other quarterback showed why he’s 5-4 as a starter. Jurkovec was 18-of-40 for 272 yards and two scores with one interception. He’s going to be good. Maybe even really good. Just not in South Bend. Just not this season.
Afterward, there was plenty for Kelly to address. Too loose with the football (three fumbles, all lost). Too many penalties (eight for 69 yards). Too un-Irish like. Not clean enough for anyone’s liking. That again goes to this program’s standard. Yet this is a game they’ll take given where it fell in the midst of everything. There’s plenty to polish, and the Irish know it.
“That’s not the standard,” said defensive end Ade Ogundeji. “We gotta do better than that.”
The Irish have time to work on it. Break’s here. They’ve earned it after the work they’ve done. A whole lot more awaits.