Hansen: Ian Book's encore at BC could lead to bigger, better things ahead for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Ten miles from his childhood home, and a little bit further from the campus where Brian Kelly’s college buddies still call him “Kelso,” the Notre Dame 11th-year head football coach soaked in something far more satisfying than nostalgia on Saturday.

A final tumbler perhaps clicking into place.

“I think we’ve talked about this at great length — when your quarterback is playing at a high level, it gives you a great chance to be a championship-caliber football team,” Kelly said, moments after his second-ranked Irish finished off Boston College, 45-31, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Notre Dame’s nation’s best 14th straight win also happened to be Kelly’s 100th at Notre Dame, a total now only exceeded by legendary Knute Rockne (105) and a total afterthought when it came to Kelly’s postgame thoughts.

“I was going to say it felt like 100 years,” he deadpanned.

Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) outrushed BC, 278-85, despite leading rusher Kyren Williams spending the second half on the sideline as a precautionary measure after landing awkwardly on his shoulder late in the second quarter.

The Irish hogged the ball, per usual, and scored 45 points or more in consecutive games for the first time since the last two victories of the Lou Holtz Era in 1996.

Besides the history and milestones, it was also a game teeming with poetic sidebars — including facing former Irish backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec in his new, reborn context — but they were ultimately overwhelmed by practical significance.

The quarterback who stayed, grad senior Ian Book, on Saturday followed the most clutch game of his Notre Dame career with an even more momentous encore. And it was certainly statistically superior to his bottom line from the Nov. 7 usurping of then-No. 1 Clemson.

Book’s 198.8 pass-efficiency rating Saturday, against an above-average defense across the board in the national statistics, was by far the best of his career against a Power 5 team. That translates to 20-of-27 passing for 283 yards and three TDs, all three to spring lockdown passing companion Ben Skowronek.

Book was also the game’s leading rusher, with 85 yards on 10 carries, including a six-yard TD run to close out the Irish scoring early in the fourth quarter.

“He does what he does,” offered first-year BC coach Jeff Hafley, his upstart Eagles now 5-4 overall and 4-4 in the ACC after being picked in preseason to finish 13th. “He runs around, scrambles, keeps things alive and runs the football.

“Our goal was to make him play quarterback. What do I mean by that? Make him play football in the pocket. Make him throw it in the pocket. Play football. And we failed to do so. He does what he does really good. He’s a great college quarterback."

“He was largely the difference in the game tonight,” Kelly said.

Enough to kind of spackle over the imperfections of which Notre Dame had enough Saturday to make the ABC broadcast crew’s redundant references to a 1993 BC upset of the Irish almost seem relevant at times.

Three lost fumbles, three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, some uneasiness on a couple of onside kicks and intermittently fatigued defenders were all explainable and fixable in Kelly’s mind, especially with a bye week immediately ahead of the Irish.

“It was not a typical Notre Dame clean, disciplined kind of game,” he said. “And we didn’t get into much of it. I’ll wait until Monday. I want them to enjoy the win.

“I challenged them to look at themselves individually about their own play and then we’ll talk about it on Monday, about what our standards and expectations are.”

Book, though, clearly exceeded them, a trend if he can sustain it gives the Irish a chance to be a better team when the Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game rolls around than they were in the 47-40 double-overtime win over Clemson a week ago.

Yet as recently as two weeks ago, Book was the “yeah, but” in a lot of people’s minds — fans, media — when it came to Notre Dame’s viability as a playoff contender. Kelly was confident there was another level to Book’s game.

More significantly, Book never gave up on the idea, even though he kept bumping into his perceived ceiling in big games.

“I wouldn’t say anything crazy changed,” Book said after career start No. 31. “I’m just who I am every day. I just knew there was more for me. I knew I could take another step, watching film and just everything a little extra.

“It’s the small details. I’m meeting with coach (offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees. I want to know why certain things are happening. It’s starting to add up. And I think I’m just trying to take it to the next level.

“I wouldn’t pinpoint one thing. I’m just elevating at the right time. It’s a whole bunch of things. It’s chemistry, offense, everything. It’s just happening at the right time right now. I feel good about it. I feel confident. I couldn’t do any of it without everybody on the offense, so it’s definitely them, too.”

Another former Irish quarterback, this one who changed positions rather than schools, put a change into the ND offense for the second week in a row. Senior wide receiver Avery Davis caught two passes for a team-best 70 yards and ran the ball once for a gain of 29.

“I’m just so happy for that kid, honestly just watching his hard work pay off.” Book said of Davis. “I mean, he came in as the quarterback in the class under me. He has played four positions. That is just unbelievable.

“So many other kids would have given up and transferred already. And this kid stuck with it. I just trust him a ton on the field. I showed that last week and this week. … No one deserves it more than him.”

It’s not like there was any postgame animosity toward Jurkovec, though. He left Notre Dame in January after two seasons and has been a big reason why the Eagles have exceeded preseason expectations.

Against the nation’s No. 10 team in total defense on Saturday, the junior labored to his worst pass-efficiency rating in his nine games in a BC uniform, 113.6. He was 18-of-40 for 272 yards and two TDs and an interception that Irish linebacker Jack Kiser garnered.

Hafley said Jurkovec had separated his shoulder in a 34-28 loss at Clemson on Halloween and that he wasn’t able to practice leading into BC’s underwhelming 16-13 victory over Syracuse on Nov. 7.

“This week, he practiced, but he wasn’t 100 percent,” Hafley said. “It shows you how tough he is, what a good leader is and how good he’s going to be. And I’m very proud of him.

“He made some big plays in this game. He’s fearless. And he’s had a really, really good nine weeks. I’m just excited he’s on our team right now, because I don’t know if there’s another quarterback in the country I’d want leading our team at this point.”

Kelly appears to feel the same way about Book, to the point Saturday, he started to delve into playoff posturing for the first time this season.

“I mean we’ve already played a Big Ten schedule,” Kelly said. “We’ve played eight games. That’s clearly more than the Pac-12 will play and it takes a lot. Our team was tired tonight and you could see they were especially on defense, because it requires a lot of mental energy.

“We played a double-overtime game, and those kids probably didn’t get to bed until 4 o’clock in the morning. So all those things matter when we talk about cumulative games across the board. “We’re going to play 11 games, 12 games. And that’s a whole different test that we’re going to be facing than some other schools that are not going to play as many games as we are.”

Hafley, for one, didn’t need Kelly’s words to convince him.

“That’s a really good football team we just played,” the former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator said. “I give them a lot of credit. And I could see that team going really deep into the playoff.

“If not more.”

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) tries to put a move on Boston College defensive back Elijah Jones (20) in ND’s 45-31 win Saturday at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass.