Notre Dame seniors provide the zest to beat Syracuse

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s offense needed a jump start.

The No. 2 Irish played sloppy through much of the first two quarters on Saturday against a one-win Syracuse team.

Maybe the emotions of Senior Day contributed to a lack of sharpness. Maybe playing in front of the smallest crowd in Notre Dame Stadium history — 6,831 fans with connections to Notre Dame faculty, staff or players on both teams — made it harder to find the energy needed to execute.

But the fifth-year senior duo of Ian Book and Javon McKinley gave the Irish the charge it needed to lift Notre Dame to a 45-21 win to close out the regular season with the first December game in Notre Dame Stadium since 1953.

Book, now the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history with a 30-3 record as a starter, gave the Irish their first lead of the game, 10-7, with a 28-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter.

Then Book connected with McKinley for a pair of touchdown passes less than 90 seconds apart on the game clock. The Irish (10-0, 9-0 ACC) flipped a 7-3 deficit to a 24-7 lead in the final four minutes in the first half.

“We weren't executing very well,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “It was either a missed read or a missed block or a drop. We weren't executing at the level that we're capable of, and then all of a sudden we executed at the level that our standard has been set at.”

“So it was not just Ian, it was the other 10 guys on offense executing at the level that they're capable of. But invariably it starts and ends with the quarterback, for good or bad, and he's taken his share of the load on the negative end of it and now he's reaping the rewards on the positive.”

Book accounted for five touchdowns — three touchdown passes to McKinley on 24-of-37 passing for 285 yards, and two rushing touchdowns — on the day he broke the program’s quarterback wins record of 29 shared by Tom Clements, Ron Powlus and Brady Quinn and extended the longest active winning streak in the FBS to 16 games.

But he had plenty of help from his fellow seniors like McKinley. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound wide receiver entered the game leading the Irish in receptions (30) and receiving yards (549) but hadn’t managed to score a touchdown this season. McKinley even dropped what should have been an easy touchdown catch on the first drive of the game for the Irish.

He rebounded with touchdown catches of 21, 28 and 26 yards and finished the game with his fourth 100-yard performance of the season (seven catches for 111 yards).

Kelly said Book returned to the sideline after throwing his second touchdown pass to McKinley shocked that Syracuse (1-10, 1-9) pressed McKinley with single coverage with 12 seconds left in the first half.

“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 of McKinley in an interview with the university’s Fighting Irish Media. “It's just trust. I trust he's in the right spot at the right time, and we showed that tonight. We'll see that more in the next three games that we've got.”

Book and his fellow seniors weren’t available for postgame interviews with reporters as they celebrated Senior Day with their families after the game.

The seniors on defense stepped up to force four Syracuse turnovers. Defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji each forced one of three fumbles that were recovered by the Irish. Defensive end Daelin Hayes intercepted a pass from quarterback Rex Culpepper in the third quarter.

Culpepper finished 18-of-29 passing for 185 yards and one touchdown and was responsible for two of the lost fumbles.

The Irish defense did have some holes against Syracuse’s rushing attack. The Orange, who entered the game averaging 78.4 rushing yards per game, accumulated 229 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Irish.

Eighty of those rushing yards came on a touchdown run by running back Cooper Lutz late in the fourth quarter when the Irish defense consisted completely of backups. But starting running back Sean Tucker and Lutz each finished with more than 100 yards rushing — 24 carries for 113 yards and one touchdown for Tucker, and six carries for 102 yards and one touchdown for Lutz.

Notre Dame previously hadn’t allowed any opposing running back to surpass 80 rushing yards all season.

“Overall, the defense had a great day,” said sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton. “We showed up when we needed to. Turnovers and big plays by Ade, Daelin and Wu. They’re always flying around making big plays for us.

“When we had to come out and get stops, we did. Obviously there were some bad plays. That happens every game. We’ll get that fixed eventually.”

Book was credited with a couple of turnovers of his own on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter. Book lost a snap from under center that Syracuse’s Marlowe Wax recovered. Book and senior Josh Lugg, who was making his first career start at center after Zeke Correll injured his ankle against North Carolina, weren’t on the same page.

Then Book threw his first interception since the season opener against Duke when safety Ja’Had Carter pulled down a deep pass intended for wide receiver Avery Davis. It ended Book’s streak of 266 pass attempts without an interception, which was the longest active streak in the FBS and set a Notre Dame record.

“Ian Book, he was definitely bigger than what he looked like on film,” Syracuse cornerback Garrett Williams said. “He had 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.”

The Irish youngsters pitched in on Saturday too. Freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis finished with a game-high 12 tackles, broke up one pass and forced a fumble of which Syracuse wide receiver Taj Harris was able to regain possession.

Freshman running back Chris Tyree sprinted to a 94-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter for the longest run of his young career on his 19th birthday. Sophomore running back Kyren Williams used 74 yards in the second half to give him his sixth 100-yard game of the season and 1,011 rushing yards through 10 games. He finished Saturday with 110 yards on 20 carries.

Book rushed for 53 yards including his 28- and 17-yard touchdowns. Tyree added 109 yards on six carries.

Williams credited the Notre Dame offensive line for allowing him to reach his 1,000-yard goal.

“Without them it’s not possible,” he said. “So every yard, every second of that moment I had goes back to them. Without them, none of that is possible. Appreciate them a lot for that.”

Kelly made sure there was a moment of appreciation for Book in the fourth quarter too. After all the other starters had been pulled for the game, Book took the first two snaps of Notre Dame’s final drive. Then with 5:03 remaining, Kelly called a timeout to pull Book from the game and inserted freshman quarterback Drew Pyne.

The limited Notre Dame Stadium crowd recognized the moment as an opportunity for an ovation. Book played the last home game of his career and — as his quote about McKinley indicated — plans to play three more games away from South Bend this season: the ACC Championship against No. 3 Clemson on Dec. 19 and two College Football Playoff games.

Thirty-three career wins would sound a whole lot better than 30.

“I want to win a national championship and if you hear my name, that is what you think of,” Book said. “We still have to go do that, so that's what I want.”