Notre Dame QB Ian Book comes up clutch in Irish upset of No. 1 Clemson

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The lasting image of Ian Book from Saturday night could have been him slumped to the ground on his hands and knees, lamenting the fumble he just coughed up trying to give Notre Dame a lead late in the third quarter.

It could have been another brutal loss in a big moment for the Irish. The criticism that Notre Dame’s quarterback hasn’t been able to shake in his three seasons as a starter is the inability to win the big game.

Instead, the fifth-year quarterback and captain shook off the turnover and his big-game reputation and led the Irish to a game-tying touchdown in the final 30 seconds. Then Book engineered touchdown drives in both overtime sessions in No. 4 Notre Dame’s 47-40 victory over No. 1 Clemson.

“Things happen,” Book said of the fumble that was forced by Clemson linebacker Jake Venables and recovered by linebacker Baylon Spector.

Book had already gained the needed yardage on third-and-1 from the Clemson seven-yard line, but he fumbled at the four-yard line and Spector recovered it in the end zone for a touchback.

“Playmakers forget about it,” Book said. “I just told myself, ‘If I keep thinking about this, I’m probably going to have a worse game. So forget about it. Let’s keep it going.’”

Book even kept the faith after Notre Dame’s first failed attempt at a game-tying drive. Trailing 33-26, the Irish gave the ball back to Clemson with 2:10 remaining in the game after wide receiver Ben Skowronek dropped a fourth-down pass from Book.

The Irish defense, which shined in the first half, struggled for much of the second half and redeemed itself in the final overtime, provided a critical stop to give Notre Dame’s offense the ball back at its own nine-yard line with 1:48 and two timeouts remaining.

The Irish (7-0, 6-0 ACC) were in position to tie the game after Book connected on a deep ball he so rarely hits — a 53-yard strike wide receiver Avery Davis — to put the Irish at the four-yard line. Following two incomplete passes Book found Davis again for the game-tying touchdown with 22 seconds remaining in regulation.

Clemson (7-1, 6-1) took a knee to send the game to overtime and scored in only two plays to start the first overtime. Freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, in just the second start of his career filling in for COVID-infected Trevor Lawrence, completed a 24-yard pass to wide receiver Cornell Powell on the first down. Uiagalelei, whose 439 passing yards were more than any quarterback has ever thrown against Notre Dame, scored on the next play with a one-yard quarterback sneak.

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams scored his second and third touchdowns of the night before Uiagalelei saw the field again. Book set up Williams for his first overtime touchdown with completions to tight end Michael Mayer (15 yards) and wide receiver Javon McKinley (five yards). Williams punched it in from three yards out behind the left side of the Irish offensive line.

Notre Dame started the second overtime with the ball. The Irish were backed up to second-and-15 following a five-yard loss, and Book responded with a 12-yard run, and a 10-yard pass to Skowronek on third-and-3. Williams scored on a three-yard touchdown run again, on second-and-goal, to give the Irish a 47-40 lead.

The Irish defense was able to hold onto the lead. Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramaoh and defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji combined to sack Uiagalelei on first down for a nine-yard loss, defensive end Daelin Hayes took down Uiagalelei for a five-yard sack on second down and Shaun Crawford leveled tight end Davis Allen to break up a third-down pass.

Uiagaelei, who finished 29-of-44 with two touchdown passes, completed a pass to tight end Braden Galloway well short on fourth-and-24 and when a lateral attempt failed, the game ended and many of the 11,011 fans in attendance — intended to be limited to students, faculty, staff and players’ families — stormed the field. COVID-19 concerns were apparently on pause after the Irish beat a No. 1 team in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since the 31-24 win over Florida State in 1993.

“When they stormed the field, you got a sense of a special moment at Notre Dame,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “I know our players did as well. What made it even more special was what I had alluded to earlier, just the resolve.

“I told our team — and, again, I'm doing a lot of things I probably shouldn't be doing — but I told our team at our walk-through (Saturday), ‘Listen, I want you to know when we win this thing, the fans are going to storm the field. And with COVID being as it is, we have to get off the field and get to the tunnel.

“Now I beat them all to the tunnel, so that didn't go over so good. But they reminded me that I did tell them that, so my skills of prognostication were pretty good (Saturday).”

Whether the celebration led to any COVID-19 transmission or not, images of the fan-flooded field will linger as a punch line or a magical moment in time. The relevant questions for Notre Dame to answer about the game’s aftermath belong in the laps of folks outside of the football program.

Inside the program, the Irish couldn’t hide their excitement. Music from the locker room could be heard from the online stream of Kelly’s postgame press conference.

“It was so fun,” Book said. “A night I’ll never forget. No matter how old I am, I know I’ll remember this game forever. Just a special moment.”

Book finished the game 22-of-39 passing for 310 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked twice and rushed for a net total of 67 yards on 14 carries. He kept plays alive and put his teammates in positions to make plays even as they failed on multiple occasions like a near touchdown to Davis or drops by Mayer and Skowronek. Clemson appeared to get away with a few uncalled pass-interference penalties too.

Book knows his reputation. The losses in big games likely bother him too, even if he hasn’t publicly described it that way. His Twitter profile photo is a photo of him in anguish during the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson in 2018. Yet he remained confident when his team needed him Saturday.

Kelly made sure of it.

“Coach Kelly’s been great on the sideline,” Book said. “He came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to win this game. This is your game to win. You deserve it, and it’s time.’

“I 100-percent believed him. I believed we were going to win this game from the beginning. To have his confidence and to have him behind me like that, it means a lot.

“This was a huge game for myself but also for this whole entire team. He didn’t give up. This whole team never gave up. There was not a moment where I didn’t think we were going to win.”

Confidence was easy to come by early for the Irish. On the first official play of the game — the first true play was wiped out by a holding penalty on Clemson — Williams took off for a 65-yard touchdown run. Notre Dame led 7-0 only 33 seconds into the game.

Both teams took turns trading blows in the first half, but most successful drives were limited to field goals. The Irish took a 20-10 lead in the second quarter when Owusu-Koramoah recovered a fumble that ricocheted off running back Travis Etienne and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.

“We knew the play was coming so I just wanted to go ahead and go and make a big hit, but the ball popped out so I grabbed it,” said Owusu-Koramoah, who finished the game tied with fellow Irish linebacker Drew White with a game-high nine tackles.

Both teams traded field goals again to end the first half with a 23-13 margin in favor of Notre Dame. The lead was erased by the middle of the third quarter when Allen caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Uiagalelei.

A three-yard touchdown run by Etienne, who was limited to 28 yards on 18 carries, gave Clemson a 33-26 lead with 3:33 remaining in the game, but that only set up the Book heroics.

If both teams win out, Notre Dame and Clemson will meet again in the ACC Championship in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 19. The Tigers lost Saturday without Heisman Trophy candidate Lawrence, multiple starters on defense and even more that exited the game with injuries. But even beating a depleted Clemson team, which hadn't lost a regular season game since 2017, is a tall task.

“We had all kinds of mistakes, but what I saw (Saturday) was really special,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “You have to just tip your cap to Notre Dame and congratulate them. If we handle our business, maybe we’ll get a chance to meet again.”

The blueprint won’t be much different for Notre Dame if the rematch happens. The Irish want to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and they rarely lost control of it Saturday.

Notre Dame rushed for 209 yards with Williams accounting for 140 of them. The defense forced critical turnovers (two fumbles before Galloway’s desperate lateral) and provided a pass rush when it needed it most. And Book rewarded the trust his teammates and coaches gave him.

“We trusted him all night,” Williams said. “He never let us down. As an offense, he was the one who kept us going. That kept us alive. We trusted him a whole lot tonight. That’s our quarterback for a reason.”

Next Saturday, Book will reunite with former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec at Boston College (5-3, 4-3). Jurkovec, the star recruit who could never unseat Book in two seasons with the Irish, has found statistical success with the Eagles.

While Jurkovec discovered new life elsewhere, Book underwhelmed in many of Notre Dame’s victories to start the season. The questions raised about his viability as the Irish quarterback following the 45-14 loss to Michigan last season started to regain steam even though the Irish owned the nation’s longest active winning streak which was extended Saturday to 13 games.

Book’s performance against Clemson could quiet doubters, but the Jurkovec matchup on Saturday will put his legacy on the line again. That’s the life of the quarterback at Notre Dame.

Book has to forget about it and keep it going.

“To see (Book) go out and perform like that, it was just amazing to experience that,” Davis said. “This is a game that is literally going to live on forever. We just made history. So I’m super proud of him, and I’m super proud of this team.”

Quarterback Ian Book threw a game-tying touchdown pass to wide receiver Avery Davis in the final 30 seconds of regulation in Notre Dame’s 47-40, double-overtime victory over No. 1 Clemson on Saturday night.