Noie: All's right again for No. 16 Notre Dame - at least for another week

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Seven yards.

Such a small amount that mattered in the big picture.

Get those seven yards, and everything about and around the No. 16 Notre Dame football program changes coming clear of a really long week. Don’t get them, get only four or five with the clock ready to run out at home against Virginia Tech and everything gets a whole lot intense, even uglier — if that’s possible.

Given where this program was the previous game, given what the Irish had to do to get back to who they were the previous few days in practice, there was no other option. Come close? No. Get an “A” for effort. No. With everything seemingly working against Notre Dame — field position, time, weather, a nervousness that doom was right outside their door in their own house — the Irish had to go and do it. To deliver. To get those seven yards and get everything about this program back on the track.

To finish it.

“The game’s on the line, it kind of does something to you,” said tight end Cole Kmet. “You put it in full gear.”

Winning gear. Go-and-get-it gear. Don’t think about the big picture, just go play. Let instinct take over. Fitting that it was the Irish offense that went out and won Saturday’s game. The group that had been picked apart the previous week. It was those guys that pieced together a massive 18-play, 87-yard drive that took 2:59 and delivered a 21-20 comeback victory.

A show of hands from those who believed this offense had THAT in them? Sure.

Ian Book — who, if Irish fans had their wish would’ve been carrying a clipboard Saturday — scampered in on a called run from the 7 with 29 seconds remaining. It could be his defining moment given how he didn’t deliver at Michigan, given how the noise for him to be benched intensified. Given how he’d seemingly taken two, three, four steps back from the sure and steady guy he was last season.

Different year? Different guy? Not on that drive.

Book was just Book. He shrugged off any significance. The moment felt good, but not because it was about him. It was about this team. Nothing else.

“None of that matters,” Book said. “We just play for each other.”

Afterward, the Irish (6-2) talked of that togetherness. Of the defense knowing once it forced the Hokies to give the ball back, that the offense would deliver. So Troy Pride stayed confident. He had come too far with these guys in more difficult moments for anything less. All those early-morning weight-training sessions, those summer conditioning drills that involved carrying logs through the mud, all that sweat and some tears — that had to pay off.

Early Saturday evening, it paid off.

Instead of fighting to find the right words to describe how this one had gone wrong, and it looked a whole lot like it would go a whole lot wrong, Pride’s words flowed freely in the post-game presser. He talked of resilience. He talked of character. He talked of passion. He talked of feeling the same anger/anguish as the Virginia Tech cornerbacks who tried to cover wide receiver Chase Claypool, who was turned loose for eight catches and 118 yards. He talked of the Irish proving something to themselves after having the previous week to ponder where it was all headed.

But they knew. Right where it ended Saturday. With the ultimate gut check.

“How you come back really shows who you are,” Pride said. “There was never a doubt. I know who we have in our locker room.”

Like the starting quarterback. Book’s game face remained long after this one was over. For him, there was no additional motivation. He’d shut out all that noise, shut out all that outside doubt and kept believing he’s a good quarterback, a starting quarterback, a winning quarterback.

Book didn’t show it the previous Saturday at Michigan, but showed it this Saturday. So when coordinator Chip Long called for that designed run on third-and-goal from the 7 with no timeouts remaining, Book ran in and ran away. Finally, he was able to do something he hadn’t done all year in practice — score in the two-minute drill. Really.

There was a different feel on the Irish sideline Saturday, something that coach Brian Kelly didn’t sense the previous week in Ann Arbor.

“I saw the passion, the desire,” he said. “They had to do it today.”

They did it while absorbing adversity body punches from all directions. Leading rusher Tony Jones Jr., wasn’t able to go because of an upper-body injury against Michigan. Starting right tackle Robert Hainsey was lost early in the game with what Kelly believed to be a fractured ankle. A fluky fumble from Jafar Armstrong turned into a 98-yard touchdown return for the Hokies. Jonathan Doerer missed a late field goal. Book tossed two interceptions.

A lot of stuff combined to conspire against the Irish. They didn’t let any of it get to them. Even late in the game, when a good portion of the student section had cleared out and other large pockets of empty seats could be seen and Notre Dame Stadium turned into Blacksburg North with chants of “Let’s Go Hokies!” Still, not enough. It all could have been. Maybe should have been. All the talk about ignoring the noise generated by the Michigan meltdown? That was easy. Doing it was hard.

“They played a little tight today,” Kelly admitted. “When the noise is so loud, it affects 18-to-21-year-olds.”

What does this mean for the rest of the season? Hard to say. Get into November and it’s just win and move on to the next week. Then the next. And the next. See what happens then. Believe as Notre Dame did Saturday, that everything comes together at just the right time.

All thanks to those seven yards. Get them, and everything gets better. The noise quiets. So does the doubt. Determination dominates. Everything feels right again.

At least, for another week.

Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) celebrates as he scores the winning touchdown with less than a minute to go against Virginia Tech Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.