Notre Dame QB Ian Book rescues Irish in sloppy win over Virginia Tech
SOUTH BEND — Ian Book had little reason to be confident.
Coming off the worst start of his career at Michigan, Notre Dame’s quarterback threw two interceptions and a third that was wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty in Saturday’s home game against Virginia Tech.
Yet with the game on the line, the senior captain came through for the Irish. His seven-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds left in the fourth quarter saved No. 16 Notre Dame (6-2) from an ugly loss and lifted his team to a 21-20 victory over Virginia Tech (5-3).
“I’m just an extremely confident person,” Book said of the final drive, “but I also just truly believe in everyone on the offense, on my whole entire team. I knew we could do it.”
Book’s touchdown capped an 18-play, 87-yard drive that included two fourth-down conversions. The touchdown came on third-and-goal with no timeouts remaining. If Virginia Tech managed to tackle him in bounds, the Irish would have had to scramble to the line to get off one last play.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Book had the option to throw a corner route to wide receiver Chase Claypool if Virginia Tech’s defense gave them a certain look. But if not, the play was designed to be a quarterback run.
Book used blocks from left tackle Liam Eichenberg pulling to the right side and wide receiver Javon McKinley controlling his cornerback to find the end zone. Book even added a little flourish as he crossed the goal line.
“He even did a little high step in the end zone,” said Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. “That was cute.”
Book either threw or ran the ball himself on all but one play of the 18-play, game-winning drive. Following a three-yard run by Jafar Armstrong on a second-and-10, Notre Dame used its final timeout with 1:45 left and put all the responsibility on Book. Claypool caught eight passes for 118 yards in the game, but none more impressive than a 13-yard catch in which Claypool managed to somehow drag the toes on his right foot in bounds to complete the catch.
Pride, who has to cover Claypool in practice, has seen plays like that plenty of times in the past. Pride was happy it didn’t come at his expense this time.
“That’s funny,” Pride said, “because I’ve been frustrated by that foot all year … He’s a special player. He can do special things. To see that, it was crazy. I’m like, you don’t need to review. Just keep going because he caught it.”
The drama didn’t necessarily end with Book’s touchdown run. Long snapper John Shannon delivered a low snap to holder Jay Bramblett on the extra point, but Bramblett picked it up and put it down in time for Jonathan Doerer, who missed a 35-yard field goal on the previous drive, to knock it between the uprights.
Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton secured the Notre Dame victory with an interception of Virginia Tech quarterback Quincy Patterson’s deep heave with two seconds remaining.
“People are going to look at the win and go, ‘Notre Dame won 21-20. Wow, that’s ridiculous,’” Brian Kelly said. “We look at it as a great victory and we really don’t care what anybody else says.”
The narrow victory offered plenty to critique in Notre Dame’s performance. The Irish failed to score in the red zone for the first time this season when Book threw an interception right to Virginia Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield in the first quarter. Then the Irish failed to score in the red zone twice more.
The second failure came when Jafar Armstrong fumbled on a third-and-goal play from the one-yard line. Virginia Tech linebacker Rayshard Ashby popped the ball free from Armstrong, and safety Divine Deablo caught the ball and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown. The Irish were attempting to extend the lead to 21-7 in the final minute of the first half. Instead, the game was tied at 14.
The third failed red-zone trip for Notre Dame’s offense came in the fourth quarter and ended with Doerer’s missed field goal.
Armstrong, who rushed 19 times for 37 yards and caught four passes for 49 yards, continued as Notre Dame’s lead back in the second half despite the fumble. Senior running back Tony Jones Jr. did not play in the game because of a rib injury suffered in the 45-14 loss at Michigan the previous week.
The Irish also lost right tackle Robert Hainsey, a captain, with what Kelly feared was a fractured left ankle in the first quarter. Junior Josh Lugg replaced Hainsey and played next to graduate student Trevor Ruhland, who was playing in place of injured starter Tommy Kraemer (knee).
“We saw some really good things today with Jafar Armstrong back in for the first time,” Kelly said. “And, yeah, you have to go back to him. He’s going to mean too much to our offense.”
Defensively, the Irish limited Virginia Tech to 240 yards and only one offensive touchdown: an eight-yard pass from Patterson to wide receiver Damon Hazelton.
Patterson started in place of Hendon Hooker, who started the last three wins for Virginia Tech. But Hooker’s leg injury in the North Carolina game on Oct. 19 limited his preparation, and Fuente chose to stick with Patterson.
“The bottom line was I couldn’t pull the trigger on putting (Hooker) in,” Fuente said. “I just couldn’t. I’d go back and forth when he practiced all week. He didn’t take all the reps that he usually takes, but he did practice all week.
“He looked better and better every day, and I couldn’t come to grips with putting a kid out there that’s played in two and a half games without a full complement of preparation time.”
Patterson, more of a running threat, finished 9-of-28 passing for 139 yards with one touchdown and interception each. Patterson also led the Hokies with 77 rushing yards on 19 carries and was sacked only once.
“Our defense did a really good job today,” Kelly said. “(Defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) and the staff had a great plan. As you saw, very little nickel. We played with five defensive linemen, prepared for runs on third down.”
That left cornerbacks Donte Vaughn and Pride in single coverage most of the day. The Hokies made some plays on the outside against them, but not at a high enough rate.
“Look, they gave up some plays, but they were on an island all day,” Kelly said. “Pride and Vaughn, they battled, they hung in there, and at the end of the day they did what we asked them to do in this game plan and they held up for us.”
Notre Dame struggled running the ball for the second straight week. The Irish were limited to 106 rushing yards with Book leading the way with 50 yards and his touchdown. For all Book’s flaws, he responded when Notre Dame needed him. He finished 29-of-53 passing (54.7 percent) for 341 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions
Even though Book wasn’t available to reporters following the Michigan loss or during the week before Saturday, he knows fans and reporters were questioning if he remains Notre Dame’s best option at quarterback. Book insists it doesn’t faze him.
“You come to Notre Dame and play quarterback, they’re going to love you when you win, and they’re going to hate you when you lose,” Book said. “That’s part of growing up, part of being mature.
“I only care about the guys on the team, that’s it. It’s about blocking the noise and playing for each other.”
A game-winning touchdown likely won’t be enough to win over his doubters, but Book still has the support of his head coach.
“I mean, if you played for the New York Giants he wouldn’t get as much that went on around here,” Kelly said. “It was way overblown.”
In the end, Book gave his team the result the Irish wanted.
“There’s no better feeling than after a game, after a win,” Book said. “So you dream about nights like this. This is why you play college football. This is why you come to Notre Dame.”