Not fazed by sloppy start, QB Ian Book leads Notre Dame to comeback victory

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The final stat line looked more like a misprint than a reflection of Ian Book’s play against Pittsburgh.

The Notre Dame quarterback’s struggles were obvious. He didn’t handle pressure well, threw two interceptions and slid short of a first down at a crucial time for the Irish.

Despite all those issues, Book led the No. 5 Irish to a 19-14 victory over Pittsburgh. In doing so, Book completed 26 of his 32 passes (81.3 percent) for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

After all that, Book only threw six incompletions. It sure didn’t seem like the day went that well for Book.

That’s been part of the magic for the junior from El Dorado Hills, Calif. Even in his up-and-down games, he’s still made plays when Notre Dame (7-0) needs them. He completed all but one of his 14 passes in the second half against the Panthers (3-4). He became the first Notre Dame quarterback to complete at least 70 percent of his passes in four consecutive starts.

Book’s final touchdown, a picture-perfect, 35-yard pass to wide receiver Miles Boykin, proved to be the game-winning score.

“That was a dime,” Boykin said.

A week after overthrowing multiple receivers down the field, Book delivered with the deep ball to give Notre Dame the lead with 5:43 left in the game. The Irish had trailed since late in the first quarter.

“That’s something I was focusing on all week was giving our guys a chance, not overthrowing,” Book said. “They can’t do anything with that, so throw it up and Miles will go get it.”

Book and Boykin were unable to connect as often as they did in the previous two games. Boykin finished with only four catches for 84 yards. His third catch came immediately before the touchdown with a 12-yard reception on third-and-5.

But Boykin never lost confidence in Book. He believed in his ability to bounce back.

“That’s the type of player Ian is,” Boykin said. “He’s a baller. He’s going to come out and give everything he has. He’s always calm and poised. You never see him throw his helmet, yell at a receiver. He just does his job, goes out there and does it to the best of his ability. We have trust in him.”

Book’s first interception came on the final play of the first quarter. Following a third-down run of 22 yards, Book tried to throw on the run, but he didn’t fool Pittsburgh cornerback Jason Pinnock.

His second interception ended Notre Dame’s first drive of the third quarter. The Irish pushed the ball to Pittsburgh’s 24-yard line but contact from defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman disrupted Book’s throwing motion and resulted in the ball fluttering downfield into the hands of safety Jazzee Stocker.

The Irish only trailed 14-6 at the time, but the doubt of a winning outcome started to become a little too real. Book wasn’t fazed. His process was to identify the mistake and keep moving forward.

“Forget about it and move on,” Book said. “The offense, I need those guys — and if they make a mistake, I need them to forget about it and same goes with me. You think about it for a minute and have to move on.”

The 6-foot, 203-pound quarterback had to find comfort under pressure. He was sacked three times and hurried three other times. Book ended up leading Notre Dame in carries with 16, but they only resulted in 31 yards.

Book used the words antsy and skittish to describe his play at times Saturday.

“His pocket awareness was not great in the first half,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “Had a nice conversation with him in the second half. He settled down nicely, but I think this is just maturation. Seeing things, feeling them and then had a great second half.”

Notre Dame finally found some momentum late in the third quarter. Book led the Irish on a 71-yard drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chase Claypool. Book threw for 77 yards and rushed for two yards on a drive that included a holding penalty. He failed to convert on a two-point conversion throw to Boykin, leaving the score at 14-12 in Pitt’s favor.

Book’s stellar second half was nearly derailed as the Irish tried to ice away the game. On a third-and-6 at Pitt’s 41-yard line, Book slid to avoid a hit and was marked one-yard short of the first down. The Irish failed on the fourth-down conversion attempt when Book rolled to his right and lost two yards looking for an open receiver.

Those miscues resulted in Pittsburgh regaining possession with 2:35 left in the game down only five points. Fortunately for Book, Notre Dame’s defense didn’t fold.

Book said he shouldn’t have slid on his third-down run.

“It’s a situational thing that I’ve got to get better with,” Book said. “I need to know that I can dive head first or make a move or something. It’s a critical down for us.”

Learning from that mistake will come easier after a win rather than a loss. There are positives to take from the comeback effort. An eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter wasn’t enough to bury Notre Dame.

“There’s no point in freaking out when you have some time on the clock,” Book said. “We’ve been there before. We didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was.”It actually was a big deal. Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes were likely on the line. Maybe he didn’t know. Or maybe the pressure didn’t matter.

“I’m proud of the guys for remaining calm,” Book said, “and being able to go down and win the game.”

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) runs the ball in the 19-14 Irish victory over Pittsburgh at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.