Hansen: Notre Dame still in search of identity, but Ruhland, Irish find their heart

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Trevor Ruhland knew he was going to be excruciatingly sore on Sunday, because the pain was already setting in Saturday evening.

“I won’t lie to you,” said the Notre Dame grad senior, standing in for injured midseason All-America right offensive guard Tommy Kraemer until at least the end of the month. “I’ve been told not to play — that I shouldn’t play — because I’ve got the knee of an 80-year-old. But I couldn’t give up.

“I came back for moments like this. You might not see it in my face right now, but I couldn’t be any happier than what I am.”

The Sunday reality check in the film room will more than likely remind Ruhland and the rest of the 16th-ranked Irish how much rebooting they still have left to do on their X’s and O’s following a heart-stopping, 18-play drive that rallied Notre Dame to a 21-20 triumph over 17 1/2-point underdog Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Stadium.

A team that was the only remaining perfect one in the red zone in the entire 130-team FBS this season (24-of-24), came up empty three of six times Saturday against the Hokies (5-3). The Irish (6-2) also lost the turnover battle to a turnover-prone team.

And they had to cover 87 yards with 3:22 to play, converting two fourth downs along the way, to keep from tumbling from the top 10 in the polls to completely out of the top 25 in the span of two weeks. Quarterback Ian Book covered the final seven yards on a planned run, crossing the goal line with 29 seconds left.

Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton’s team-leading third interception of the season with two seconds left snuffed out the Hokies’ last stab at a miracle.

What the Irish won’t have to take inventory of is their mettle. And while that alone won’t get Notre Dame back into the Cotton Bowl discussion or even launch them toward a couple of non-New Year’s Six alternatives in Orlando, it did buy them time and circumstance for a much-needed reinvention for the November stretch run.

“We played a little tight today,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, one week removed from a 45-14 cataclysm at Michigan that tested his own resilience and his faith in Book as a No. 1 QB. “Look, they try not to hear the noise, but when the noise is so loud, it affects 18- to 21-year-olds, and it affected them a little bit.

“But they fought through it, they showed grit and (Book) did as well, and I’m proud of him. I couldn’t be more happy for those guys, because they had to do it today. They weren’t going to get help from anybody. And they found a way to win.”

The Irish did so with a new right tackle for most of the game. Junior Josh Lugg stepped in for captain Robert Hainsey after the junior starter suffered a broken ankle.

And the Irish found their way despite a fumble near the goal line just before halftime. Junior Jafar Armstrong, in his first extensive action since the Sept. 2 season opener, tried to pound the ball in from one yard out to give the Irish a 21-7 lead just before halftime.

But Tech linebacker Rayshard Ashby punched the ball loose and safety Divine Deablo plucked it out of the air and sprinted 98 yards for a tying TD with nine seconds left in the half.

That ended the nation’s longest streak without a lost fumble from a running back at 1,273 carries, going back to the Boston College game at Fenway in 2015. Josh Adams’ second-quarter fumble in a 19-16 escape of heavy underdog BC on Nov. 21 of that year had been the previous one.

But Kelly, playing without leading rusher Tony Jones Jr. (rib injury), went right back to Armstrong on the first offensive play for the Irish in the second half. And again. And again.

Armstrong finished with a modest 37 yards on a career-high 19 carries, but the converted wide receiver hauled in four passes for 49 yards, including one on fourth down during ND’s final drive.

“I mean, it’s his first, really, game, right,” Kelly said. “I mean, he played last week, but he was so tentative. If you guys watched him at all, he caught a kickoff and looked like he didn’t know where to go. So this was really his first game back.

“We saw some really good things today with Jafar Armstrong back for the first time. And, yeah, you’ve got to go back to him. He’s going to mean too much to our offense.”

So is Book, who didn’t statistically sparkle (113.7 pass-efficiency rating — roughly 30 points below his season average), but played his best when it mattered most and still accounted for almost 400 yards in total offense.

“I think we can build off of this,” Kelly said. “I think Ian Book can have a lot of great things happen for him. He was back to throwing the football with much more authority, confidence.”

Ruhland said Book’s demeanor never changed during the week or before the big drive.

“He just claps his hands, ‘Let’s go. Next play. Let’s get it. We’re going to score every drive.’” Ruhland said. “So it’s great having that steady presence with him.”

And if Book ever needs a reminder of what toughness looks like, all he has to do is look to his right offensive guard.

“I’ve had three surgeries in my left knee,” Ruhland said. “I’ve broken my elbow. I’ve torn both my pecs. Tore my labrum in my shoulder. I’ve broken my ankle. I broke my nose.

“But how could you miss something like this? If I was on the sidelines watching that, obviously I would be excited for everybody, but it would make me sick. I just want to be a part of it.

“The best people on the world are in that locker room. They’re the toughest. They’re the smartest. They’re the best character people in the world right there.”

Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong (8) gets dragged down by Virginia Tech’s Rayshard Ashby (23) during Saturday’s game in Notre Dame Stadium.