CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — After the pocket collapsed and a defender converged on him while he scrambled to his left, Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book made the unthinkable happen.
To connect with tight end Michael Mayer in traffic for an 11-yard completion, the graduate senior flicked an underhanded pass that hardly qualified as a spiral. Because he was under pressure, Book did not have enough time to square his shoulders prior to the throw.
That completion converted a critical third-and-6 in the fourth quarter before No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) trumped No. 19 North Carolina (6-3, 6-3) 31-17. And that completion summed up the improvisational magic Book used to extend plays and drives Friday at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“Playmaker. Playmakers make plays,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He was confident in his ability to make a play in that situation, and he wouldn’t tell you it’s something that he expects to do at any one time. But look, you let guys play.”
Earlier in the game, Book used a similar throwing motion on a completion to wide receiver Ben Skowronek. Book said he remembers attempting an underhanded pass in a playoff game as a sophomore at El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Oak Ridge High.
“I knew Mike was going to make a play,” Book said. “I also knew Ben could catch one of those little flips. It worked out. They’re obviously risky. I don’t want to do it took much. I’m just trying to fight to get that first down, fight to get the ball in the playmaker’s hands. I knew Mike would come down with it. I’m definitely not thinking about doing it. It just kind of happens.”
The Irish entered this week without two starters on the offensive line. Center Zeke Correll and right guard Josh Lugg replaced Jarrett Patterson (foot) and Tommy Kraemer (appendectomy), respectively. So Book received at least a few low snaps and needed to use his legs to escape pressure on several occasions.
The Tar Heels were unable to take advantage for the most part by struggling to bring Book down and finish plays. After recording a sack on the third play from scrimmage, they tallied just one sack for the rest of the game.
Book completed 23-of-33 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown while turning eight carries into 48 yards. Book (237) leaped past Brady Quinn (226) for the most consecutive pass attempts without an interception in Notre Dame history. He has not thrown a pick since the season opener against Duke.
“Ian Book was as good (Friday) as anybody I’ve ever seen,” UNC head coach Mack Brown said. “We couldn’t tackle him. We harassed him. We had people around him. There could have been six sacks. We could not get him on the ground. Then he made some unbelievable plays on third down.
“I don’t know if he’s in the Heisman race or not, but he should be. His record is 29-3 (as a starter). He’s fast. He’s quick. He’s accurate. He’s smart. He’s not going to do things to get his team beat. I was so impressed with him tonight. I was impressed with him as much as any quarterback I’ve seen.”
On his lone touchdown pass, Book eluded multiple defenders and improvised. He secured a low snap from Correll that hit the ground, and he backpedaled while under duress. Then he spun out of the reach of two defenders before rolling to his right and connecting with running back Kyren Williams for a four-yard score.
Williams had pass-protection duties on that play but released to the right for Book to find him. He caught four passes for 20 yards and finished with 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Irish wide receiver Javon McKinley tallied a career-high 135 receiving yards on six receptions.
“I didn't think he was going to get out, but he did an unbelievable job and he did get out and I just kind of flipped my hips and ran that way," Book said of the pass to Williams. “I know our guys are going to keep fighting no matter what. I scramble and try to make as many plays as I can. I trust these guys to be in the right spot. That was another example of that. Kyren did an unbelievable job."
Book deserves credit for what he did on that play, too. And maybe he deserves more credit overall.
Earlier this season, Pro Football Focus ranked Book No. 10 among quarterbacks in the ACC. Kelly referenced an article in USA Today from this past week that excluded Book when ranking the top 10 quarterbacks in college football. Book said he talked about that story with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
Being doubted is not new for Book. He signed with Notre Dame’s 2016 class as a three-star recruit. He entered a loaded quarterback room as an afterthought. National pundits perceived him to be limited physically. Not enough size and not enough arm strength.
Yet here Book is helping extend the nation’s longest active winning streak to 15 games.
“I just let it fuel the fire. Chip on my shoulder,” Book said. “I had a chip on my shoulder in high school in the recruiting process. I have a chip on my shoulder here. I don’t know who is writing those. Have they played football or not? Not sure. It’s just part of it.
“There’s a ton of articles out there that say a lot of bad things about Notre Dame. It doesn’t really matter who’s ranking at the end of the day. I’m having fun out here playing college football. It’s a dream come true. I feel fortune to be here.
“We are 9-0, so I have nothing for whoever wrote that. It’s motivating. I think I’m top 10 and want to be. I want to compete every day to be like that. At the end of the day, it’s just fuel to the fire.”
Critical offsides penalty
On their first possession of the second half, Notre Dame’s offense appeared to stall.
The Irish faced a fourth-and-1 at their own 24. They kept their offense on the field in an attempt to draw the Tar Heels offsides. Book used a hard count a few seconds before the play clock was set to expire.
UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel was called for an offsides penalty. Then Notre Dame finished that possession with the go-ahead touchdown on the game, bringing the score to 24-17.
“I didn’t really get a look from the sidelines or the replay. But I felt like me and (defensive end Raymond Vohasek) were onsides,” Gemmel said. “What I heard from the ref was that we made a movement to try to go. So if you flinch on the line of scrimmage, that’s considered a penalty. But they called the offsides.”
Skowronek capped that 13-play, 97-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown run on an end-around.
“Everybody that was in the stadium and everybody watching the game knew what they were doing,” Brown said. “We can’t have somebody offsides. That’s ridiculous. It shouldn’t have been close. Shouldn’t have moved. They weren’t going to go for it.
“But at the same time, you want to be fair to the young man. You are also not supposed to have a quarterback who is moving with deception to act like he’s going to snap the ball to pull you offsides. That will be one of the ones that we will look at it closely.”
Brown also questioned whether that offsides penalty should have been called. The Tar Heels were penalized nine times for 90 yards.
“It cost a possession whether he was offsides or not,” Brown said. “Some people said the TV people thought that he was not offsides and the center reached out to grab him. We can sit here and discuss all the penalties tonight, but I’d rather look at them and see if they were penalties and send them to the (ACC) office.
“We’re getting three or four back usually that weren’t penalties during a game. Until we start being critical of kids, I’d like to know that it was a penalty.”
• The Irish winning by 14 ended an impressive UNC streak. For the first time in two seasons with Mack at the helm, the Tar Heels lost by more than seven points.
• Coming into this week, Notre Dame and UNC were tied at No. 14 nationally in rushing yards per game (233.5). The Irish limited the Tar Heels to their lowest rushing total (87 yards on 30 carries) since 2017 against N.C. State (83 yards). Notre Dame has held six straight opponents to less than 100 rushing yards.
• UNC entered the game averaging 563 yards in total offense per game but totaled just 298 yards on 57 plays. The Tar Heels had not been shut out in a half by any opponent this season but went scoreless in the final two quarters against the Irish.
• With the win, Kelly (101) passed Lou Holtz (100) for the second-most wins by a head football coach in Notre Dame history.
• Book ties Brady Quinn, Ron Powlus and Tom Clements for the most career wins by an Irish quarterback ever (29).
• Notre Dame played on a Friday for the first time in the regular season since facing Miami in 1981.