DURHAM, N.C. — To reach the visiting locker room of Wallace Wade Stadium requires serious effort.
Much like the one No. 15 Notre Dame delivered for most of the previous four quarters Saturday against overmatched Duke.
It’s an adventure to get to the warmth of that space, which isn't even in the stadium. Whaaa? Getting there required the Irish to cut across the playing field, then go up and along a concrete path and make a long trek almost the length of another football field. Think of walking up the tunnel of Notre Dame Stadium, crossing Moose Krause Circle, meandering alongside the reflecting pool outside Hesburgh Library, then entering that building to rest and recover after blocking and tackling and running and scoring.
Following his work in a 38-7 victory late Saturday, Irish quarterback Ian Book was in no hurry to leave the cold of the near-empty stadium. Or to go get warm. Or get out of the spotlight. He stuck around and soaked it all in.
"We wanted to come down here and make a big statement," Book said. "Get a big road win."
Two weeks after surely wanting to disappear in cold and rainy Ann Arbor, Mich., Book was going to savor this road effort. All of it. He was one of the last Irish to leave the field, even after teammates Liam Eichenberg and captain Alohi Gilman had jogged off shouting, ‘Let’s go!’ to their teammates.
There would be no traditional singing of the Alma Mater. No raised helmets to the Irish seating section. Just get off the field, get a hot shower, get on the bus and get out of town.
Almost all followed that lead. But not the quarterback.
The kid from Northern California, who enjoyed another big effort in North Carolina, took his time, finding enough of it to drift toward the brick wall separating the field from the stands. There he handed his white Under Armour sweatband to a young fan. He signed a No. 12 jersey. He acknowledged the small group of Irish fans chanting his name with a wave, a smile and a nod.
Then slowly, oh so slowly, Book started toward the Irish locker room. Just before stepping inside, his breath floating up and out into the 33-degree night, he accepted congratulations from a bundled-up Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick. He shook hands with a smiling university president Rev. John Jenkins.
Then he disappeared into the warm room and the swarm of teammates to do something the Irish had waited really all year to do — celebrate a road win. Oh, they got one of those back on Labor Day night in the heat and humidity at Louisville, but it wasn’t the same. That win left the Irish wanting more, wanting to dominate an opponent. Not for a series here or there, but four full quarters.
Notre Dame (7-2) came as close to it Saturday as it has all season. This helped wash away some of the bitter feelings left on the Sanford Stadium sod in September. Some of the anguish spilled last month at Michigan. This one was good. Team good.
A firm foundation
This was one that wasn’t won on Saturday as the record will show, but earlier in the week, back at the LaBar Practice Fields on campus. When the seven captains met with Kelly earlier in the week, their message was simple, clear direct, even a bit demanding. Don’t let up on us, they pleaded.
Push us harder. Work us harder. We’ll respond to it. We’ll do the work. We’ll put more work in if that’s what it will take. November or not, they wanted more.
What happened? Kelly said afterward that Tuesday and Wednesday were some of the hardest, toughest practices the Irish have had all year. Those sweltering training camp sessions down at Culver Academy included. They pushed themselves to the brink in early November.
What did it produce? How about two of the best practices all year. Then they played one of their most complete games.
It wasn’t a coincidence. Notre Dame steamrolled toward this one all week. Book being Book. Wide receiver Chris Finke playing more like the savvy veteran many expected all season. The offensive execution being turned up; the defense being turned loose. Giving Duke (4-5) and its fans next to nothing to cheer. They could have that one scoring drive when the Blue Devils found the end zone. But that would be it.
This was Notre Dame’s night. It was Book’s night. Still think the guy can’t be the quarterback? Fine, let him play running back.
Sensing during the week that if he stayed poised in the pocket, Book knew he would get his chances. He got them. Like finding Chase Claypool against single coverage on the outside. Like finding Finke on not one, not two, but three-straight third downs to spearhead one scoring drive.
And if a team that played a big dose of man coverage all night was going to indeed cover, well, then Book would unwrap a different part of his game, one first on display that first play from scrimmage back in Kentucky. He was going to tuck it and go. Then go he did, to the tune of 139 yards on 12 carries.
"It worked out great," Book said. "I felt very comfortable. We were able to move the ball."
Book ran up the middle. Away from defenders. He tore off big chunks of yardage. He ran for 45 yards one time. Not satisfied, he unleashed a 53-yard scamper that saw him dragged down shy of the end zone.
That’s what bothered him most.
"I need to get faster," he said. "I need to get in the end zone. I'm kinda upset about that."
One week after orchestrating that late/great escape against Virginia Tech, Book engineered the offense to 469 yards and five scores. And, yet again afterward, insisting that all noise about his pocket presence or second-year starter’s slump or job security fell on his deaf ears. He was, Kelly said afterward, assertive. He was decisive. He was THAT quarterback.
"This is what we were expecting him to move toward," Kelly said. "Sometimes it just takes a little bit longer. I believe he's only going to get better at things he can get better at."
Noise? What noise? None of that matted the previous week. None of that mattered the last week. None of it will matter next week. Or the next or the next. It’s just about Book and his buddies and just ballin.’
Like they did Saturday. Like they plan to do this coming Saturday, and the two Saturdays after that. Close games, coast games. Doesn’t matter. Just as long as they get another chance to do what they do.
And do it like they did Saturday.
This one didn’t deserve to be at night, in prime time and on a network (ACC Network) that too few get. For all but a few drives, it was a snoozer, a three-hour scrimmage/slog where the Irish often did as they pleased. Duke tried, but it just didn’t have the talent or the play-makers or the crowd or the atmosphere or much of anything else to keep up.
By the time it did end, there might have been more band members than fans freezing over in the north end zone. Next time, save everyone the trouble (and save the newspaper deadline) and play this one in the afternoon, where it belonged.
That was a cold night in Carolina. A relatively quiet one as well. Except for the shouts coming from that visiting locker room (Woooooo!). After road letdowns the last two stops, the overall silence was nice. And needed.