More legacy changing moments await Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Dabo Swinney didn’t want to do it, but he did it anyway.

The Clemson head coach invoked the name of Joe Montana on Tuesday when asked about current Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book. Yep, he went there.

“He’s a special player,” Swinney said. “This kid is a great player. I hate to compare him to Joe Montana, but Joe Montana played at Notre Dame, and he just has a little bit of magic to him.”

Three months ago, some Irish fans were still wishing backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec was given the starting job to prevent his offseason transfer to Boston College. Now the quarterback who refused to lose the job is being compared to one of the greatest quarterbacks in Notre Dame history.

Book’s name was going to be mentioned alongside Irish legends this season as long as Notre Dame kept winning. But his climb to becoming the winningest quarterback in program history could have been downplayed as a result of his longevity as a third-year starter.

Then everything changed on Nov. 7. Book and the Irish beat then-No. 1 Clemson in Notre Dame Stadium. He directed a game-tying drive in the final minutes to force overtime and refused to let his offense get stopped in either of the two overtime sessions required for Notre Dame to finish the 47-40 victory.

“We didn’t do a very good job against (Book) the first game,” Swinney said this week. “He was the difference in the game. He was incredible in every regard.”

Not only did Book lead the game-tying drive, but he came up clutch from start to finish. He accounted for eight of Notre Dame’s 10 third-down conversions on 19 chances with eight completions for 107 yards and the game-tying touchdown pass to wide receiver Avery Davis.

Book finished the game 22-of-39 passing for 310 yards and one touchdown and rushed 14 times for 67 yards.

No longer did head coach Brian Kelly calling Book a winner feel like a shallow compliment that gave him credit for team success through his up-and-down performances. After big-game losses to Clemson in 2018 and Georgia and Michigan in 2019, Book finally had the marquee win to elevate his legacy.

The former three-star recruit from El Dorado Hills, Calif., did it against a Clemson defense missing three starters in its front seven, but no asterisk could take away from how he rose to the occasion or how he recovered from potentially letting it slip away with a fumble in the end zone late in the third quarter.

A loss after that late fumble would have felt sadly fitting for Book’s career. The two worst passing efficiency performances of his career came in the losses to Clemson and Michigan and he threw two interceptions in the defeat at Georgia. But that end-zone fumble could have been the mistake he couldn’t shake.

Yet he did on that Saturday, and he hasn’t slipped up much on any of the subsequent Saturdays he’s taken the field.

Book will have to play sharp and confident on his final college football Saturday for No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 ACC) to have a chance to beat No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1 ACC) in the ACC Championship at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. (4 p.m. EST on ABC).

Questions answered

The questions Brian Kelly receives about Ian Book at his regular press conferences with local reporters tell the story of Book’s development this season.

Gone are the queries about Book’s chemistry with his receivers, his progression in his third season as the starter and his improvements left to make. Now there’s a chance for Kelly go an entire press conference without a question about Book at all, as was the case Sunday, because the 6-foot, 208-pound Book has answered so many of them with his play.

Dabo Swinney was happy to the fill the void Tuesday. When asked to describe what Book showed Clemson in the first matchup this season and if Book did anything that surprised him, Swinney gave an answer that lasted two minutes. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s a long time for an uninterrupted sound-bite that started with his Montana comparison.

“He has a great command of their scheme,” Swinney said as part of his praise. “He obviously has good people around him. He has an incredible offensive line. But man, he’s the heart and soul. He makes them go.

“He made some great throws. We had some really good coverage and he put some balls right where they needed to be. He’s tough. He’s as good a runner as you’re going to see and he really knows how to scramble.

“Sometimes he’s scrambling to go run for it. Other times he’s scrambling to open guys up. Because they are as good at the scramble drill as anybody you’re going to play. They do an unbelievable job.

“Just incredibly impressed with him. His toughness, his accuracy, his ability to push the ball down the field, but his ability to extend plays. He makes so many plays off schedule, and he does it routinely. You have guys there, he’ll make them miss. He’s a problem.”

Book became a problem for Boston College, North Carolina and Syracuse in Notre Dame’s last three games too. In that stretch, Book completed nearly 70% of his passes (67-of-97) for 847 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception for a passing efficiency rating of 165.9.

Book ended the Clemson game with an efficiency rating of 141.4 for the season. He’s bumped that up to 149.2 for 29th in the FBS with his last three performances.

Book’s hot hand has coincided with wide receiver Javon McKinley’s emergence as the go-to target in the offense. McKinley recorded at least five catches in each of the last five games and tallied 28 catches for 489 yards and three touchdowns during that span.

“I love the way Ian Book plays,” McKinley said. “He’s a forward-thinking guy. He never lets anything get to him whether he messes up on a play or read or other guys around him in the offense aren’t succeeding where they need to be.”

After McKinley dropped an easy touchdown pass against Syracuse, Book went right back to McKinley for his first three touchdown receptions of the season.

“He knows that we’re going to step it up,” McKinley said. “We’re going to have his back. He’s going to have our back.”

Nearly every teammate asked about Book has shared a similar sentiment. That’s how he’s navigated everything that comes with being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback for three seasons.

“He’s just mature with everything,” said running back Kyren Williams, who has a knack for serving as Book’s last line of defense in pass protection. “He doesn’t ever get too high or get too low. He’s always even-keeled with everything. That’s what I’ve noticed with Ian.

“He’s always consistent no matter what it is. He shows up every day, and I know what I’m going to get from him. As my quarterback I love that and trust that every single day Ian’s going to come play to the best of his ability every single time, no matter whether it’s a practice or a game. I know he’s going to make sure that I do the same. That’s the kind of level we’re on.”

Openly confident

Despite all the acclaim from Dabo Swinney, Ian Book wasn’t perfect against Clemson in November.

The fumble was an obvious miscue, but he takes the blame for Notre Dame not scoring many touchdowns in the red zone too. Twice the Irish settled for field goals in the first half after driving inside the Clemson 10-yard line.

Those drives stalled with a false start by freshman tight end Michael Mayer on fourth-and-1 from the two and a dropped pass by Mayer at the two on third-and-goal from the nine. Those specific errors don’t necessarily fall on Book, but the Irish could have scored before those plays too.

“We got down there doing it the right way and we had a few mistakes,” Book said. “So it’s on us to clean that up. It’s on me for sure. It comes down to the small details and especially in the red zone a laser focus down there.

“We expect to see the same thing (from the Clemson defense). It’s a rematch. They’ve had two weeks to prepare. We expect to see something we’ve never seen before. That’s how you prepare for it.”

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a well-established record of throwing different looks at opposing offenses. Book said it’s fun to dive into the possibilities of what Clemson may try to do and how the Irish will counteract that. Keeping Book in check will certainly be high up in the game plan.

“For us to win the game, we’ll have to play a lot more precise in what we do,” Swinney said. “We have to affect (Book) and not let him get comfortable. That’s the biggest thing we have to do. He was tremendous in the biggest moments in that game.”

The moments only get bigger from here. Saturday the Irish can win their first-ever conference championship, which was only made possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Irish joining the ACC for one season to accommodate scheduling limitations. A win, and maybe even a loss, will put Notre Dame back in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons.

Beating Clemson twice was never going to be easy. The return of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, defensive tackle Tyler Davis and linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones Jr., all of whom missed the previous matchup, will make Notre Dame’s task even harder.

That’s why many are skeptical Notre Dame can do it again Saturday as a double-digit underdog.

“We don’t really worry about everybody else, but there were a lot of doubters,” Book said of the previous win over Clemson. “It felt good to get that win and believe in each other. This whole team believed that we could win before that game started. That’s what it’s about.

“This game would just be the same thing. People are probably saying a lot of things about their players being gone and now they’re back. ‘There’s no way.’”

But the Irish believe. Behind a quarterback playing his best football and leading with unwavering confidence.

“I’m excited that all those guys are back,” Book told ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, “and we can play them and have all those people be quiet once the game’s over and we get this win.”

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book has completed 69 percent of his passes since beating Clemson in November.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) escapes from Syracuse defensive end Kingsley Jonathan on Dec. 5.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) has plenty to smile about this season.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) throws the ball under pressure from Boston College.