Notebook: Notre Dame's Ian Book quietly pragmatic leading up to defining clash with Clemson

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — From the outside looking in, Ian Book strangely has come across as an afterthought heading into the game of his Notre Dame career that will most likely define him.

Across two Zoom conference calls with the media this week ahead of No. 4 Notre Dame’s clash with No. 1 Clemson Saturday night (7:30 EST; NBC-TV), Irish head coach Brian Kelly fielded all of one question about his third-year starter and his momentous 30th career start.

From Kelly’s vantage point, inside the Irish football bubble, it’s been a pragmatic week more than an emotional one as Book gets set to lead the Irish (6-0, 5-0 ACC) against a No. 1 team for the 26th time in school history and the first time in 15 seasons when Brady Quinn almost catalyzed an upset of visiting USC.

“This is much more about protecting yourself, getting us in the right protections,” Kelly said Thursday. “(Clemson defensive coordinator Brent) Venables does a great job with different looks. Third down, I think you spend a little bit more time on third down in terms of protections.

“So I think the week for Ian is a little bit more cerebral in that sense, making sure you’re well-protected, so we can get the ball out in a timely fashion. We’ve been really good at third-down situations. So we want to make sure that we give him all of those tools to give him the opportunity on third downs.”

The Irish ranked seventh among 103 FBS teams nationally coming into the week in third-down efficiency — 54.8% for the season after surpassing the 60% mark in each of their past two games.

“I think other than that,” Kelly continued, “it’s been a typical Ian Book week in terms of real good leadership, really good execution. That’s why he’s so successful.”

Book’s success computes to a 26-3 record in 29 starts (.897), but the three losses — including ND’s 30-3 College Football Playoff flop at the end of the 2018 season the last time these two teams met — have been the worst, second-worst and seventh-worst statistical performances of his career.

Last season’s late October upset loss at Michigan, admittedly followed by the nation’s longest active win streak of 12 games, was the nadir (69.73 rating). The Clemson loss, which included Book being sacked six times, was No. 2 from the bottom (83.65). Books came into this week 35th nationally in pass efficiency (144.0).

There is a glimmering piece of history, though, for Book. In the only other time Kelly and the Irish have hosted a top 10 team (at the time of the game) in his 11 seasons, Ian Book was at his statistical best.

In career start No. 2, he fashioned a career-high 183.5 rating in a 38-17 mauling of No. 7 Stanford in 2018. Book was 24-of-33 for 278 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions for an Irish team that came into the game ranked eighth.

Meanwhile Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC), rolling out freshman QB D.J. Uiagalelei for the second straight week in place of COVID-recovering Trevor Lawrence, is attempting to earn its first road win against an AP Top 5 opponent in school history.

The highest-ranked teams Clemson has taken down in a true road game were both ranked No. 8 — North Carolina in 1981 and Miami (Fla.) in 2009.

The Tigers have 12 wins all-time wins against Top 5 opponents, with eight at neutral sites and four coming at home.

Personnel updates

In addition to missing All-American Lawrence, Clemson will be without three front-line defensive players Saturday night due to injuries — linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones and defensive tackle Tyler Davis.

Third-team All-ACC defensive end Xavier Thomas, who had been working his way back from a slow and complicated recovery from COVID-19, will miss the first half of the ND game for being flagged for targeting on a late hit to Boston College QB Phil Jurkovec last Saturday.

• Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau, in a time share at buck linebacker with Shayne Simon and Jack Kiser, will also miss the first half Saturday night because of a targeting call last weekend.

• Kelly said offensive guard Tommy Kraemer, pulled late in ND’s 31-13 win at Georgia Tech on Saturday, is back to 100 percent his week.

“Tommy had a stiff back leading into the game,” Kelly said. “When that game was pretty much in control, we got him out of the game. He’s felt really good this week, so we don’t think he’ll have any ill effects.”

Mixed signals?

Of the AP Top 10 teams, Clemson is the only one of them this week to rank in the top 20 nationally in as many as four of the five key metrics in which eventual national champions tend to excel (rush offense, pass efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin).

Apparently the Tigers have acquired a reputation for becoming elite at another skill set — stealing opponents’ offensive signals coming in from the sideline.

“I think you have to be cognizant of it, be aware of it,” Kelly said. “It’s something that we are dealing with and we’ve lived it and we’re prepared for it.

“I think when you come down to the execution part of it, you just want to give your kids the opportunity to execute in a manner where nothing gets tipped off, so we’ve got to do a great job that we don’t tip anything off.

“And if that’s wrist-banding more or doing other things, we’re looking at all those alternatives.”

Campus COVID

Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins released a video Thursday to the ND students encouraging them to finish the semester strong when it comes to COVID-19 after the school hit a record high for active cases (189). Less than a month ago there were 26.

In Thursday’s dashboard report alone, there were 44 new cases.

The school shifted its academic calendar to finish the semester on Nov. 20, the last day for final exams. The Irish football team will still have at least three regular-season games to play after that and a possible fourth Dec. 19 in the ACC Championship Game.

Around the FBS this week, six games already have been scratched for this weekend, including the cancellation of the Pac-12 season opener between Cal and Washington.

Making the grade

Notre Dame senior walk-on running back Cameron Ekanayake has been named a Rhodes Scholar finalist.

The science-business major played his high school football at area Michigan power Edwardsburg. He’s the second Notre Dame player of the Brian Kelly Era to be named a Rhodes Scholar finalist, joining former wide receiver Corey Robinson.

“He’s just such an important part of our football program, in that he provides such an important role for us on our scout team and in our locker room,” Kelly said of Ekanayake. “He’s a guy that a lot of guys gravitate toward — not because they want help with homework, just because of his personality.”

Robinson, incidentally, will be part of NBC’s pregame coverage team for Saturday’s Irish-Clemson matchup.

Ratings bonanza?

Notre Dame-Clemson is expected to bring NBC some big viewership numbers. So far, the most-watched Irish football game of the season was the opener with Duke (4.32 million on NBC).

Last week’s ABC telecast of the Georgia Tech game is second (3.77 million), followed by Louisville (3.12 million), Florida State (2.92 million), Pitt (2.49 million) and South Florida (957,000).

The kickoff time and network for Notre Dame’s Nov. 14 game at Boston College won’t be released until Sunday as ESPN exercised its six-day option on that matchup.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (right) chats with quarterback Ian Book (12) during ND’s 31-13 victory Saturday at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.
Notre Dame walk-on running back Cameron Ekanayake is a finalist to be a 2021 Rhodes Scholar.