FOOTBALL

Analysis: Context arriving soon for Notre Dame QB Ian Book and his soaring stats

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Ian Book woke up Sunday 60 spots ahead of Clemson prodigy Trevor Lawrence in the national pass-efficiency rankings.

The Notre Dame senior’s 202.7 mark puts him fifth, behind two former transfers holding down the 1-2 spots, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts (Alabama) and LSU’s Joe Burrow (Ohio State); the QB who displaced Hurts at Alabama — Tua Tagovailoa — in third; and a player who — like Book — leaped over QB Brandon Wimbush on the depth chart — UCF freshman Dillon Gabriel, at No. 4.

Book’s also fifth nationally in points responsible per game (24.0) and even better in passing yards per completion (second at 19.1).

Saturday night in Athens, Ga., in Notre Dame’s first-ever trip to Sanford Stadium, Book will get a big taste of context.

Actually, all of the seventh-ranked Irish (2-0) will and so will their national statistical trends in a top 10 clash with No. 3 Georgia (3-0) — from ND’s 120th ranked run defense and 121st third-down efficiency to its No. 3 pass-efficiency defense and nation’s best turnover margin.

ESPN’s College GameDay will be present to officially stamp the third-ever meeting between the two schools as the epicenter of the college football universe. It’ll be the 30th time an Irish game commanded that stage, with ND going 13-16 in the previous 29.

Vegas does not expect it to end well for the visiting team. Georgia opened as a 12 ½-point favorite, and the line quickly edged up to 13.

History is against that being defied. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is 3-7 against the AP Top 10 while at Notre Dame, though nine of those games have been played away from home.

More curious is Book’s history. Clemson, last Dec. 29 in his 10th career start, was the first time the Irish QB faced a team that finished the season in the top 50 nationally in total defense. And he put up career-low numbers.

Georgia enters Saturday night’s matchup ninth in total defense.

Throw the narrative on top of it about Kelly’s second-year starting QBs at ND tending to regress or at least flatten out statistically, and the angst starts to build in the Irish fan base.

Some solace may come from the fact that Kelly has spent his 10 seasons at Notre Dame dealing with these kinds of story lines. Remember the bowl losing trend he inherited — 1-9 in the last 10 postseason appearances prior to his arrival? And then the Jan. 1 bowl losing streak that fell into his lap, too?

The latest on the checklist to go down came last September 29, when the Irish won a top 10 matchup for the first time since 1993 — by 21 points over Stanford.

“They come to Notre Dame wanting to play in these types of games,” Kelly said Sunday when pressed about his team’s state of mind heading to Georgia. “They look at it as a privilege to play in these types of games.”

The Irish are 23-3 since the first game in the home-and-home series unfolded in Notre Dame Stadium in September of 2017. Since that 20-19 Bulldogs victory, ND has won 12 successive games at home, the 66-14 crushing of New Mexico on Saturday the latest in the school’s third-longest home winning streak ever.

Kelly had a voice in the series coming together with a team it had only previously met in a bowl game (the Sugar Bowl to end the 1980 season).

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick, mindful that ND’s 12-game schedule gets compared to other teams’ 13-game slate by the College Football Playoff selection committee, felt the need to add SEC competition to ND’s schedules that had been void of regular-season meetings with that power conference since a 2005 home game with Tennessee.

So why Georgia?

“We liked the fact that we were going to be in that area, in the state of Georgia recruiting, so we liked that piece of it,” Kelly said.

“We have a lot of alumni in that area, so I thought it was a draw for us as well. It’s not only the school itself, but there are some geographical concerns that we look at in terms of putting together the schedule as well. And I think that’s what made this an easy decision for us.”

Injury update

Among convalescing players moving close to returning — tight end Cole Kmet, short-yardage back Jahmir Smith and wide receiver Michael Young — only Young is definitely out for Georgia.

“We’ll get more information on Cole (Monday),” Kelly said of his projected starter, sidelined since Aug. 8 with a broken collarbone. “But we’re very encouraged that we’re going to see the things that we need to see from him to be cleared to play.”

The sophomore, Smith (sprained toe) was expected to resume running on Monday, “so he’s moving in the right direction,” Kelly said.

Young, another projected starter and out since Aug. 17 with a broken collarbone, could return as soon as ND’s Sept. 28 matchup with No. 21 Virginia, per Kelly.

“He will be involved in all our activities this week, but we won’t clear him ‘til the following week,” he said.

Starting running back Jafar Armstrong (torn abdominal muscle) is one who’s not close to a return. Late October remains the optimistic timetable for him to rejoin the lineup.

Late bloomer?

Roughly three and a half years ago, Javon McKinley became the highest-rated wide receiver to sign with Notre Dame (No. 59 player nationally in 2016, per Rivals.com) since Michael Floyd in 2008 (No. 27).

On Sept. 2 against Louisville, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior recorded his first career reception, for 11 yards. Saturday against New Mexico, he added a couple more. Both went for touchdowns and much of the 85 yards amassed on those two receptions came after the catch.

The 65-yard scoring play came on a series of spectacular moves and broken tackles.

In a game in which 15 Irish true freshmen saw action and numerous other unknowns got their chance to land in the stat column, McKinley’s surge is one that is translated into significant trust from the coaching staff.

Others like fellow receiver Braden Lenzy and chronic position-switcher Avery Davis — awarded the game ball after the New Mexico rout — could have played themselves into more significant roles as well.

For McKinley that wasn’t easy to do, given his injury history, three years of no production and a winter arrest that resulted in an indefinite suspension and almost a permanent exit from the roster.

What that turnaround will look like Saturday night at Georgia is expected to be McKinley’s first career start. He’ll be the boundary outside receiver, with senior Chase Claypool moving over to the other outside slot and grad senior Chris Finke moving back to his familiar slot position.

“He’s a really good blocker,” Kelly said Sunday of McKinley’s overall appeal that extends into the run game. “He made a couple of really good blocks. He’s physical. One of the stronger guys that we have.

“In terms of what (strength) coach (Matt) Balis would talk about in the weight room, he’s at the top of all the categories. So you’ve got a physical presence. A guy who can go up and get the football.

“He brings all those intangibles — big, physical presence out there who can come down and block a safety. He’s earned his opportunity to get significant playing time. He’ll be a significant part of what we do moving forward.”

Squibs

• The 16 freshmen who saw action for the Irish Saturday against New Mexico are punter Jay Bramblett, kicker Harrison Leonard, safety Kyle Hamilton, defensive ends NaNa Osafo-Mensah and Isaiah Foskey, cornerback KJ Wallace, linebacker JD Bertrand, rover Jack Kiser, nose guard Jacob Lacey, defensive tackles Howard Cross III and Hunter Spears, quarterback Brendon Clark, wide receiver Cam Hart, running back Kyren Williams, center Zeke Correll and offensive tackle Andrew Kristofic.

• Hamilton and senior safety Jalen Elliott are tied for 17th nationally in passes defended per game (combined interceptions and pass breakups) at 1.5 each.

• Senior Chase Claypool is 22nd nationally in receiving yards per game (95.0).

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Notre Dame QB Ian Book (12) greets fans as he leaves the field following ND’s 66-14 romp over New Mexico, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Javon McKinley (88) fends off a tackle by New Mexico’s Johnny Hernandez (32) en route to the end zone Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.

WHO: No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0) at No. 3 Georgia (3-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Sanford Stadium; Athens, Ga.

TV: CBS

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Georgia by 13