Hansen: No. 2 Notre Dame's odd and winding road still may lead to big dreams

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In what felt like part-Mulligan, part-hiccup, Brian Kelly found enough to like about No. 2 Notre Dame’s 45-21 eventual dismissal of Syracuse Saturday to put a bowtie on it and roll it out as a reason to celebrate.

With no band, no student body and the smallest crowd in Notre Dame Stadium history (6,831) — due to COVID-19 and a reconfigured academic calendar — an encore of field storming as part of the reveling almost wasn’t physically possible.

And there wasn’t enough consistent domination by the Irish to inspire even field trickling.

What Kelly — three wins away from both a possible national championship and tying coaching legend Knute Rocke for the most coaching wins in Notre Dame history — can extract from Senior Day Saturday and sincerely feel good about, though, was plain to see.

He’ll bring to Charlotte, N.C., in his hip pocket for the Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game and the first of potentially three straight games against top 5 opponents, a quarterback who’s evolved from a complementary piece to an elite playmaker.

“I want to win a national championship, and if you hear my name, that is what you think of,” grad senior QB Ian Book said in a university-released statement after the game. He had just accounted for five touchdowns, a handful of milestones and the poise and prowess to keep ND’s regressive streaks Saturday from festering into something that failed the proverbial eye test.

“We still have to go do that (win the national title),” Book added.

If there is such a thing as an Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship, Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 ACC) captured that Saturday in a year when the Irish set aside their football independence for the first time in 132 years as a football program.

In Notre Dame’s alternate universe, the one where COVID never became a pandemic and the Irish played their original 12-game independent schedule, ND would have finished the 2020 regular season last weekend at USC and Kelly would have presumably stayed on the West Coast to recruit.

The ACC deserves credit for restructuring its two divisions into one big 15-team race and allowing Notre Dame a lane to compete for a national championship with what’s turned out to be Kelly’s best team in his 11th season.

What the alternative might have looked like probably would have been similar to BYU’s blueprint, a patchwork schedule that has drawn eyerolls from the College Football Playoff selection committee.

The smallest crowd in Notre Dame Stadium history (6,831), suppressed by COVID-19 conditions and restrictions, gets ready to take in ND's 45-21 victory over Syracuse on Saturday.

The Cougars rolled the dice this week, volunteering for an 11th-hour, cross-country trip to fill in and play fellow unbeaten and under-respected Coastal Carolina, only to come up a yard short Saturday night in a 22-17 Chanticleers win.

“We're obviously extremely grateful for commissioner (John) Swofford and giving us this opportunity” Kelly said of the temporary ACC membership that goes bye-bye next fall. “And then it's like anything else, take advantage of the opportunity.

“And we've taken full advantage of the opportunity, have played the 10 games that we have in front of us. And now we're playing for an ACC Championship.

“Have been really impressed with the procedures and protocols that the ACC has put in place during this COVID time, and excited to go to Charlotte and play for an ACC Championship.”

Kelly, incidentally, has won 21 straight conference games going back to a Big East loss to Connecticut in October of 2008 while he was coaching at Cincinnati.

What he’ll need to tweak and fix between now and the Dec. 19 rematch with No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1) isn’t necessarily daunting as much as it was surprising that it happened in the first place on Saturday against the league’s 15th-place team.

The Orange (1-10, 1-9) had two running backs breach the 100-yard rushing mark (Sean Tucker 113 and Cooper Lutz 102) Saturday against the nation’s No. 4 rushing defense. The Irish hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Navy QB Malcolm Perry on Nov. 16, 2019.

And the last time a running back ran for triple digits on an ND defense, it was Michigan's Hassan Haskins (Oct. 26, 2019) in the last Irish loss before they began to concoct the nation’s longest active winning streak of now 16 games.

Syracuse, the second-worst team among the 127 in the FBS this season in total offense, amassed 414 total yards. That’s second only to Clemson’s 473 in the 47-40 double-overtime win on Nov. 7 that ND has yielded during the 16-game winning streak.

“We didn’t play up to our standard,” linebacker Jack Kiser said. “They were able to rush a little bit on us. We’ve got to tighten things up next week and move on from it.”

The defense did force a season-high four turnovers, including a big-man interception by 270-pound defensive end Daelin Hayes.

Notre Dame’s own running game, 16th nationally, labored early in the game, in part because ND rolled out its third offensive line configuration in as many weeks.

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) congratulates running back Chris Tyree (25) after his 94-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run against Syracuse, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Senior Josh Lugg, a reliable plug-in at guard and tackle during this career, made his first career start at center in place of second-stringer Zeke Correll. The latter was sidelined with an ankle injury a week after filling in for injured starter Jarrett Patterson.

Senior Dillan Gibbons, meanwhile, started at right guard. But grad senior Tommy Kraemer — deemed an emergency-only replacement by Kelly — rotated in early Saturday, just 15 days removed from an emergency appendectomy.

“As we went along during the week, Tommy had made it clear that in his last home game, he wanted to play,” Kelly said. “Once he was cleared by our doctors, we saw that there was no need not to get him in the game.

“And then with the weather situation, it was a little cold, I didn't want to keep him out very long. So I asked (O-line coach) Jeff Quinn to get him in after the second series. So we got him in. He got in, felt really good. Jeff liked his production in there.

“But we wanted to keep both him and Gibbons in the game and continue to build that depth.”

Kelly lauded Lugg’s play but said a welt on his hand contributed to a bad exchange between him and Book that resulted in a lost fumble.

With Patterson out for the season, Lugg and Correll will compete the next two weeks in practice to be the long-term solution at center on a unit that was deemed the best in the nation by Pro Football Focus before the shuffling.

“As you know, the longer we stuck with it in terms of our offensive running production, the better we were,” Kelly pointed out.

That’s one of the big philosophical differences between first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and predecessor Chip Long, the latter of whom was hired as Tulane’s offensive coordinator this past week.

Sophomore Kyren Williams eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the sixth time this season (110 on 20 carries to go along with three receptions for 33 yards) and became the first Irish 1,000-yard rusher in a season (1,011) since Josh Adams in 2017.

And he was hardly quiet about it. On the field. On the sideline. Inciting his teammates to join the party.

“I feel like it’s a natural thing,” Williams said. “My mom and my dad, they’re both rowdy people, My dad has always instilled in me that you have to bring that energy, that juice to get people around you fired up.

“That was his big word — fired up. So I feel like now, just keep doing what I’m doing. Keep trying to keep the guys hyped up, energized, juiced. As everyone knows, juice here is a big thing. So as long as we keep the juice up, we can be good.”

Freshman Chris Tyree joined him in the 100-yard rushing club (109 on six carries), thanks largely to the third-longest run in Irish history, a 94-yard TD sprint.

Book, per usual, had big moments in the running game, an aspect that gets overlooked by those measuring him against the nation’s top statistical passers.

He had 53 yards on eight carries, including rushing touchdowns Nos. 15 and 16 of his career.

“Ian Book, he was definitely bigger than what he looked like on film,” Syracuse cornerback Garrett Williams offered. “He had really, really good mobility, which we knew going in. But he was way faster than what he looked on film. So he made a lot of plays with his legs. He’s a good player.”

Book accounted for 252 of his 285 passing yards in the first half when the Irish run game was laboring. All three of his TD passes went to fellow grad senior Javon McKinley, who’s been a revelation this season but hadn’t scored until Saturday.

McKinley had seven catches for 111 yards.

“With this being his last night in Notre Dame Stadium and him being able to finish like that in Notre Dame Stadium, it's unbelievable,” Book said in the university video interview. Book was not made available to the local media after the game.

Book’s own final chapter in Notre Dame Stadium saw his school-record interception-free streak end at 266 consecutive attempts, against the nation’s leading team in takeaways. But he still recorded his 30th win as a starting quarterback, breaking a four-way tie with Brady Quinn, Tom Clements and Ron Powlus for the most in school history.

And with his 15th home victory without a loss as a starting QB, Book joins Tony Rice (16-0), Joe Theismann (11-0-1) and Heisman Trophy winner John Lujack (9-0) as the only Irish starting QBs not to have lost a game in Notre Dame Stadium.

“He just continues to get better each and every week,” Kelly said. “He'll probably tell you it wasn't his ‘A’ game. It was probably a game where he played good.

“He wants to play better. But that's the great part about him. He hasn't played his best game yet in his eyes, but he still accounted for five touchdowns and threw some great balls.”

And that’s the beauty of the three-star recruit poached from Washington State’s 2016 recruiting class after the Irish missed out on higher-rated prospects Malik Henry (Florida State), Jacob Eason (Georgia), Shea Patterson (Ole Miss), Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State) and Matt Fink (USC).

Because of the way he’s elevated his game since late October, Saturday wasn’t just a fitting end of sorts for Book but maybe, just maybe, only the beginning.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly played hardball with the College Football Playoff powers-that-be on Friday on behalf of his players.