Hansen: Still lingering after Louisville win is who can Notre Dame QB Ian Book become?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

At the height of the early COVID-19 stay-at-home orders last spring, when hand sanitizer and toilet paper were essentially luxury items, Ben Skowronek somehow found his way out to El Dorado Hills, Calif., to tap the supply of both from Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book and his family.

“I went out there, I think, for two weeks, probably overstayed my welcome,” Skowronek, a grad transfer wide receiver from Northwestern, said Saturday night. “We threw a handful of times and we just hung out. We created a bond.

“Having a bond with your quarterback is so important. Having him be able to trust you and vice versa, me trust him. I guess it's paying off now.”

Specifically, on the second-ever reception of the Notre Dame phase of Skowronek’s college career — a 12-yard pickup on a third-and-six pass near midfield — that helped the fourth-ranked Irish burn the final 7:55 off the clock in an aesthetically confusing 12-7 victory over Louisville.

The socially distanced Notre Dame Stadium crowd of 10,182 watched Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) flunk the eye test when it came to evolving a passing game that seemed primed for it on so many levels in shakily extending the nation’s longest active win streak to 10 games.

Yet ND paired that with the 12th-best defensive performance of the coach Brian Kelly Era (233 total yards) against a team averaging close to twice that (424.2) and scoring at a 40.3-points-per game clip coming into the game.

The Irish were particularly strong at the safety position, with Kyle Hamilton making five tackles and breaking up a pass, and Shaun Crawford collecting six tackles, a tackles for loss, a pass breakup and the game ball.

“The biggest emphasis this week was just keeping it simple and letting our guys line up and play our game,” Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes said, “win our one-on-ones and do what we’re accustomed to doing.

“Last week (a 42-26 scorefest with Florida State) we didn’t really feel great about what we put on film. So this week we just wanted to get back to the basics, stick to our fundamentals and play our type of ball.

“We were confident in that. Coach (defensive coordinator Clark Lea) allowed us to go out and make plays, kept the game plan simple and it was a fun day.”

The thorny introspection that Kelly must reconcile, though, is why wasn’t it a fun day for the offense too?

He offered up the 30 mph wind gusts and the team’s restart last week after the COVID outbreak as context for some underwhelming offensive numbers.

Book, in particular, was clutch, both on the first Irish drive of the second half to give Notre Dame the lead for good, at 12-7, and the 14-play, 57-yard game of keepaway to help limit Louisville (1-4, 0-4) to just two second-half possessions.

His 13-yard scramble on third-and-8, in fact, finished off ND’s only TD drive of the day. It also vaulted Book past Brandon Wimbush into second place on ND’s career rushing list for quarterbacks (1,159) behind only Tony Rice (1,921).

“I get asked the same question each and every week — he's a winner,” Kelly said in evaluating Book’s performance. “He wins football games.

“When the game is on the line, you can count on Ian Book to come up and make big plays for us. That's a good feeling to have.”

But the question that has stalked Book through ND’s impressive 35-6 run since Kelly’s own coaching philosophy reboot is who can the third-year starter eventually become? In big games? Like the next one staged in Notre Dame Stadium?

That’ll be Nov. 7, when No. 1 Clemson comes to town, looking to truncate ND’s 22-game home winning streak.

The Tigers also held their Saturday opponent, Georgia Tech, to seven points. But Clemson had to put its punter, Will Spiers, in at quarterback to keep their offensive output from growing beyond 73 points.

Book, meanwhile, finished 11-of-19 passing for 106 yards with no TD passes or interceptions. That translates to a 104.8 pass-efficiency rating, more than 36 points lower than his season average that had him ranked No. 33 nationally.

It’s also the fourth-lowest of his 27 career starts, behind only last year’s team cratering at Michigan (69.73), the 30-3 College Football playoff loss to Clemson to end the 2018 season (83.65) and his emergency start at North Carolina as a sophomore (92.14) when he stepped in for an injured Wimbush.

Louisville’s multiple defensive looks and pressures Saturday seemed to confuse Book, which helps explain the Cardinals’ four sacks against what had been rated as the nation’s best offensive line.

“I’m not changing what I said — our O-line is unbelievable,” Book said. “I trust all of them.

“My job is to go out there and at the end of the day, get that ‘W.’ We’ve been able to do that this whole entire year. Tomorrow, when I go and meet with, (offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees, I’m going to be hard on myself.

“I am every week. There’s never a week where I’ve play a perfect game. And that’s what the quarterback position’s about.”

ND’s fastest receiver, Braden Lenzy, was limited with a soft-tissue injury, Kelly said. That left plenty of opportunities for others, though, to step forward.

Skowronek, slowed by a hamstring injury since early in the opening win over Duke on Sept. 12, ended up being ND’s most productive receiver with a modest 28 yards on two catches. Junior Kevin Austin Jr. had his first reception since his freshman season, an 18-yarder.

He almost had a second catch late in the first half, but a 13-yard TD reception was correctly reversed by replay. And a fake field goal on fourth-and-9 on the ensuing play came up a couple of yards short, leaving the Irish with a fragile 6-0 halftime lead.

Notre Dame’s running game ended up finding its rhythm in the second half and bailed out of the offense. Sophomore Kyren Williams, the nation’s seventh-leading rusher, topped the 100-yard mark for the third time this season.

His 24-yard run late in the game gave ND its third third-down conversion of the final clock-killing drive. He finished with 125 yards on 24 carries.

But it was clear early in the game that Notre Dame wanted to explore developing its passing game to give it the offensive balance the Irish will need during its tough November stretch — and even next weekend in its first road game of the season, at Pitt.

Book fired a deep ball to last week’s offensive star, Javon McKinley, on the first play. That incompletion was wiped out by a Louisville offsides infraction. Book would attempt six more passes of his 19 total in that drive that ended with a 32-yard Jonathan Doerer field goal.

“We're going to be a better football team as we continue to grow and develop,” Kelly said. “Yeah, this team is nowhere near where it can be and where I think it will be.”

He won’t have to wait long to find out if he’s prophetic. Football is a copycat game. And Pitt can cut and paste Louisville’s game plan into next weekend’s matchup — but with better defensive personnel than the Cardinals have.

The Irish have invested a lot in believing Book is better than his numbers, that the players around him will ascend. And that when they do, so will Book.

If Notre Dame really is a top five team, that will have to be the next narrative to not only emerge but to become a sustainable reality for the balance of the season.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book runs the ball in this Tribune file photo. As part of Notre Dame’s COVID-19 safety protocols, photojournalists were not allowed Saturday inside Notre Dame Stadium for the game against Louisville.