Noie: Notre Dame QB Ian Book delivers big effort after big decision
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A big move at a big moment was a big deal for a couple of days around the No. 8 Notre Dame football team.
Even the head coach admitted that he had a restless night’s sleep Friday back at the Greensboro Airport Marriott, wondering if it was the right time for a change. At quarterback. For an undefeated team.
Big move. Bold move.
Should Brian Kelly stick with Brandon Wimbush, who helped the Irish grind out three close victories to open the season? Or should Kelly go with Book, a backup in name only, a guy who prepares each day as if he’s the starter?
What if it worked? More importantly, what if it didn’t? It had to, didn’t it?
Wheels that were set in motion on Monday to elevate Book to No. 1 at the No. 1 position of importance reached a destination at a few minutes past noon Saturday against Wake Forest. Book put on his gold helmet and headed for the huddle; Wimbush wore a blue baseball cap and remained on the sideline.
“We made a big decision to get Ian Book in the game,” Kelly said. “That’s a pretty big decision to make when you’re 3-0 and your quarterback leading your football team is (12-3) as a starter.”
Notre Dame then scored a season high for points — more than doubling its previous best — and rolled up 566 yards of offense to whack Wake Forest, 56-27, at BB&T Field.
“When my name is called, I need to go out there and play at my best and make sure the offense will succeed,” Book said. “Every week, I prepare like I’m going to go in.”
But for this one, it was more than a goal-line cameo or because Wimbush was hurt or ineffective. This one was from the start and, until it got out of control, finish. Afterward, Kelly wouldn’t commit to naming a starter for next week against No. 7 Stanford or the week after in the snake pit that’s sure to be Lane Stadium against Virginia Tech.
He’s got two quarterbacks that can help the Irish win games and get to where they want to go. Where they need to go. Where they have to go. But for now, there’s really no decision.
Book’s the guy. Has to be.
He earned that Saturday after going 25-of-34 for 325 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for three scores. The offense needed three series to get rolling. Once it did, there really was no stopping it. With Book at the controls, it looked like Notre Dame (4-0) could score anytime it had the ball. For a good chunk of Saturday, it did.
Really, we should have seen this coming.
Seen it back in the spring when there seemed no obvious separation between starter and backup. Seen it during preseason when again there was no difference. Wimbush was good. Book was good. Nobody really great. It was just a matter of when, not if, Book would be summoned. Sure, the timing of it — after three home wins — was a little odd, but this was going to happen sometime this season.
Book has carried himself with the confidence of a No. 1 guy, and Saturday was no different. None of what he did was a surprise. Same with last year when he spelled an injured Wimbush last October, about 80 minutes east against North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Same with the Citrus Bowl game. Book expects to do this, then goes out and does it.
“There’s still a bunch of plays I want back,” Book said. “That’s what I try to do every week, get better. I feel like I made some improvements, but I’ve got a long way to go.”
Those first three wins, each closer than expected? Seems like they happened months ago. The offense wasn’t ready for Book to play. Guys like Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones needed more time. More reps. Additional seasoning. Once they were ready, so was Book.
Notre Dame found its identity on Saturday. On both sides of the ball. Kelly went all-in on Book, and Book delivered. Time to stay with the guy. For next week. Maybe next month. Maybe this season.
“I came here,” Book said, “to be the starter.”
There are myriad differences between Book and Wimbush, but there’s no getting past this one. Book better looks the part. Like he knows he’s going to do something. Sometimes something special. He’s going to make the right reads and the right calls and the right plays at the right time.
Watch him roll out of the pocket. He’s got an idea where he’s going with the football. A plan. A purpose. He follows through with it. He completes it. Yeah, it took some time for Book to find his footing but once he did, whoa.
That was fun football to watch.
Notre Dame tallied 42 yards on 12 plays and no points on its first three drives. Its next two? How about 16 plays for 155 yards and two scores? Notre Dame scored touchdowns on four-straight possessions.
“Our offense,” Kelly said, “played to the level it’s capable of.”
That can’t be a coincidence. Everything flowed with Book. No stops and starts and sputters and passes thrown at the feet of receivers. No real uncertainty. It was machine-like.
Like firing a screen pass laser to Michael Young, which he turned into a 66-yard sprint, to set up a score. Or finding Chase Claypool on a crossing route and score in the third quarter. Like connecting with freshman Kevin Austin along the sideline early in the fourth quarter. Those are throws that Wimbush maybe doesn’t make. Or, at least, complete.
Even when Book ran for his three scores, it was so matter-of-fact, so normal. Second time he found the end zone, late in the third quarter, he just casually flipped the ball to the official before celebrating.
After the game, he jogged off the field, right into the fumes of the waiting Irish buses, and into the locker room. No fist-pump. No helmet raise. All business. For him, it was just another day.
Book admitted it took him two plays to shed the nerves of being in the game. Of being the starter. Once he settled down, he sure settled in.
“It’s good to have nerves,” Book said. “We know our preparation has got us ready. We’re confident. We’re ready to play.”
Notre Dame’s traveling party was scheduled to return early Saturday evening to South Bend, a couple of hours before summer officially slid into fall. Time for the season to change.
Maybe in more ways than one.