Getting a read on Ian Book and a Notre Dame offense looking to thrive, not survive, vs. USC

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

Ian Book’s disdain for USC came about organically.

The Notre Dame junior quarterback’s older brother, Nolan, loved the Trojans when the two were growing up in El Dorado Hills in northern California. Naturally, to irritate him, Ian rooted for UCLA.

“We butted heads on that,” the younger Book said with a smile. “And we talked about it all the time.”

Neither of those schools ever completely warmed up to Ian (or Nolan for that matter) in the recruiting process, though. But Ian Book has a chance to help make history Saturday night in the renovating Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum anyway.

Two seasons after Book made the Irish road trip to play USC in L.A. as a redshirting freshman bystander, he returns with a team that’s 21-3 since that 45-27 drubbing by USC, including 11-0 this season and carrying a No. 3 ranking 15 days before the College Football Playoff selection committee reveals its final rankings and playoff pairings.

The last time a Notre Dame QB was on such a stage — and also the last time the visiting team won in the longtime cross-country series — was 2012.

Yet what looked early in the season like a 2012 sequel gradually uncoupled from that story line, largely because of Book and head coach Brian Kelly’s brazen decision to elevate him to the top of the depth chart on Sept. 22.

Those two elite post-Holtz Era teams do share dominating defensive fronts and 11-0 starts, but the 2012 QB tag team of starter Everett Golson and reliever Tommy Rees combined for a national pass-efficiency ranking of 74th nationally.

That’s the lowest such ranking of the 40 teams to reach the national championship game in the BCS/Playoff Era, and 31 spots behind the second-lowest (2001 runner-up Nebraska). It was also 73 spots below the pass-efficiency ranking of the team that trumped the Irish in the 2012 title game, Alabama (42-14).

Book on Saturday night (8 EST; ABC) enters the 90th ND clash with USC, this version with a 5-6 mark and its coach (Clay Helton) on tenuous ground, ranked seventh individually in passing efficiency (165.5) and No. 2 in completion percentage (.726) — and with two fewer career starts (8) than 18-year-old USC No. 1 QB JT Daniels.

A prevailing thought among the Irish players is that the offense hasn’t come close to peaking yet. And if it can, that, coupled with ND’s top 20 defense nationally, gives the Irish a chance to be something other than tourists if/when it makes the playoff field. In other words, it’s an offense looking to hit the accelerator in its regular-season finale instead of trying to concoct ways to survive.

“What does it look like?” Book mulled the question about the next level for the Irish offense. “Just going out there and totally dominating as an offense is what it would look like when we put it all together.”

Interestingly, a piece that may push the offensive evolution, may be former starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush in an out-of-the-box role. Or not.

If Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long are serious about actually deploying Wimbush in a role other than a backup QB, they’d be smart to take that out for a test drive against the Trojans.

In a 36-3 rout of Syracuse last Saturday in New York’s Yankee Stadium, the 6-foot-2, 222-pound Wimbush did line up in the same backfield with Book for a handful of plays, but wasn’t anything more than a decoy against the Orange.

“It was cool, really cool for him to be out there,” said Book, who counts Wimbush as a close friend. “He deserves that. He’s a playmaker. We want to get him the football.”

But ND’s potential to be more potent on offense than its current national rankings of 28th in total offense and 27th in scoring offense suggest is Book continuing to improve himself, just as he has done virtually every week since the Sept. 22 depth chart flip.

“I think there’s been two things,” Kelly said of the latest pieces to fall into place in Book’s game. “One, protections, his ability to get us in the right protection. Really good on Saturday (against Syracuse). Changed protections, get us into the right looks. He’s working really well with (center) Sam (Mustipher).

“I think the other piece is the (run-pass options), the ability to see things and get the ball out. I think that’s something that he continues to grow. As he gets better at that, we can add more within the running game.”

One of the things that gives Book that chance is that he doesn’t seem to get caught up in all the white noise around him. In sessions with the media, for instance, he operates them pragmatically and detached, like he’s running a two-minute drill.

If he’s uncomfortable with a question, he spits out a word salad and moves on to the next question.

“We’re very aware of the situation,” Book said of what’s on the line Saturday night. “But it’s not something that we talk about too much and create the potential for pressure for ourselves. We know where we are and what we’ve got to do.”

Just like Book imagined growing up he’d be doing someday, albeit in a UCLA uniform.

“It’s going to be awesome,” said Book, one of eight scholarship Californians on the ND roster. “Just the tradition of the two teams and the rivalry that we have. It doesn’t get any better than this, especially in week 12.”

Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) directs teammates during the ND’s 36-3 rout of Syracuse, Saturday at Yankee Stadium.

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET

L.A. Coliseum

TV: ABC

Radio: WNSN (101.5 FM), WSBT (96.1 FM, 960 AM)