Hansen: Notre Dame victory invites overreaction, but the real concern isn't about Book

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The most amusing overreaction from a Notre Dame season-opening victory that admittedly asked for it at times Monday night were a few stray tweets on Twitter calling for a demotion of Ian Book.

Midway through the second quarter.

Statistically the Irish senior quarterback and second-year starter came out a lot better in No. 9 ND’s 35-17 victory Monday night than he did aesthetically.

His 193 passing yards (14-of-23) without an interception and career-high 81 rushing yards on 14 carries was diluted by a penchant for giving up on passing plays too quickly and an inability to extend them with his feet.

Book’s poise was surprisingly intermittent, until, that is, he converted three third downs in three tries in a fourth-quarter drive that sent the Cardinal Stadium record crowd of 58,107 spilling into the parking lots as the Irish lead swelled to its final 18-point margin.

Outside of that stretch, Notre Dame converted 2-of-9 third downs.

It would have been the perfect time for Book to channel his inner Brady Quinn and take the next step in his evolution from an uber-efficient QB into something more dynamic, capable of putting a team on his back and camouflaging shortcomings elsewhere on the depth chart.

A new one of those popped up early in the first quarter Monday night, when another dynamic player, junior running back Jafar Armstrong, left with what was reported to be a lower-body injury of some type that Kelly wasn’t sure of its severity or specificity.

Armstrong started the game lined up as a wide receiver and finished it as a bystander, just as tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Michael Young did (both with broken collarbones sustained during training camp). Kmet actually made the road trip but didn’t play.

Whether Book’s ceiling as a college player is still in front of him or, say, the Stanford game last October is an intriguing question, but not anywhere near the most urgent one as coach Brian Kelly heads into an abbreviated bye week followed by the Sept. 14 home opener with New Mexico.

“He can be better, and we’re not going to beat him with a shoe,” said Kelly, who attributed Book’s uneven performance to the blind-date nature of Louisville’s defense under a new coordinator and head coach.

“It’s one game. He needs to be better. He knows that and he will be better. He’s smart. He’s athletic. You saw the first run he had.

“He has changed his body. Tommy (QBs coach Rees) will do a great job with him in getting him to see the bigger picture and run through his progressions. And I’m extremely confident that that will happen.”

No matter who Book becomes over the next 11 games, it won’t be enough to coax a playoff run — of even a New Year’s Six berth — if the Irish run defense can’t transform quickly and dramatically.

A team that finished 101st nationally in rushing offense, 108th in total offense and 121st in scoring offense a year ago under the deposed Bobby Petrino regime, at the half was on pace for 322 rushing yards.

That’s 111 more than Clemson tagged the Irish for in the Tigers’ College Football Playoff mauling of the Irish last December.

“That’s one of the best defensive lines in the country, and I thought our guys up front handled them in the running game,” said an almost giddy Louisville coach Scott Satterfield, who concocted consistently elite running games at his former school, Appalachian State.

To the ND defense’s credit, it was a big part of a 28-3 reversal to end the game once the Cardinals built a 14-7 lead less than 11 minutes in.

But Louisville still won the rushing battle 249-232 and averaged more than 5 yards a carry. And the Cardinals did it with an unlikely cast.

Javian Hawkins was the game’s leading rusher with 127 yards on 18 carries. He is a redshirt freshman carried the football twice last season while playing infrequently enough to preserve a redshirt season.

Before that, he was a two-star recruit, with only Boston College, Syracuse and Nebraska as the Power 5 schools besides Louisville that offered him a scholarship.

Meanwhile, quarterback and reclamation project Jawon Pass found huge seams to run through and amassed 67 yards on 16 carries, despite taking four sacks.

The 6-4, 239-pound Pass amassed 93 rushing yards all of last season, and it took him 76 carries to do it. That’s a 1.2-yards-per-carry average. His two first-quarter rushing TDs Monday night matched his entire output from last season,

Ironically, Pass was the very first quarterback the Irish coaches chased and offered a scholarship to in the 2016 recruiting cycle — the same one that ended up with ND poaching Book out of Washington State’s class.

Notre Dame never gained much traction with the four-star prospect from Carver, Ga., but he did attend ND’s Irish Invasion summer camp. And the Irish recruiting staff even created a recruiting graphic with Pass pictured on a faux ESPN The Magazine cover with the headline EQUALIZER.

The Irish actually need one or two of those at the two inside linebacker spots, a position group that delivered the heavy rotation of bodies that was promised, but also alarmingly inconsistent production.

Three fumble recoveries and an All-America-caliber performance by safety Alohi Gilman helped mitigate the damage.

“We’re aligning ourselves toward the kind of things that I want to see,” Kelly said of the big picture. “We’re not there yet. We don’t look like the finished product by any means.”

Nor, to Kelly’s point, did the playoff version of themselves last season in early-season escapes at home against Ball State and Vanderbilt. They found a way to fix it — with a quarterback change.

That’s not the formula for growth potential this season, not that an improved Book wouldn’t be welcome.

The question that lingers amid the postgame spin cycle is: Can the Irish run defense be fixed? With a road date at No. 3 Georgia on Sept. 21, the answer not only has to be yes, but soon.

Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) loses control of the ball while Louisville’s C.J. Avery (9) chases him during ND's 35-17 victory Monday night at Cardinal Stadium.