Who: Notre Dame vs. Clemson
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Records: Notre Dame (12-0), Clemson (13-0)
SOUTH BEND – Ian Book was Notre Dame's backup quarterback in spring practice. He was the backup quarterback in fall camp. He was the backup quarterback for the first three games of the season.
Then, suddenly, he was the starter, leading an Irish team that had national championship aspirations, starting Saturday against No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl In Arlington, Texas.
That's a crushing amount of pressure for a player who had started two previous games at the college level, but it hasn't bothered Book. In his start against Wake Forest in Week 4, the Book-led offense put up 56 points in an easy victory and the Irish haven't looked back, going 8-0 with the redshirt sophomore quarterback under center.
“He's meant everything to this team,” senior center Sam Mustipher said of Book. “He's calm all the time, level-headed guy no matter what's happening out there on the football field. That's a testament to the preparation he put in well (before) the time his name was called to go in the game this year.
“He's a great kid on and off the field. We love having a guy back there like that.”
Mid-season quarterback changes are usually not the province of championship teams. They usually signal uncertainty at the most important position on the offense and can lead to controversy if handled or if the new starter underperforms.
None of those problems has hit No. 3 Notre Dame this season. Book has taken the reins and never given coach Brian Kelly any reason to rethink his decision. The El Dorado Hills, California, native has been one of the most efficient passers in the country, completing 70.4 percent of his passes for a stellar 8.8 yards per attempt and 19 touchdowns with only six interceptions.
His passing efficiency of 162.5 is No. 8 nationally, 11 spots ahead of Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, despite the latter's comparatively higher profile. Lawrence, a true freshman and one of the most coveted recruits in recent college football history, has gotten plenty of publicity as he's led the Tigers to an undefeated season. By almost any statistical measure, however, Book has been the superior quarterback and he's still looking to improve.
“(There is) definitely room for more growth,” Book said. “Every game, there's a couple of plays I want back and just grow on and get better at. There's things I work on every day in practice that I want to be better at.”
Book, who originally committed to Washington State before flipping to Notre Dame, will have to be at his best against Clemson. The Tigers boast one of the best defensive lines in football and rank No. 3 in the country in sacks, taking down opposing quarterbacks 46 times.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, the highest-paid coordinator in college football, loves to dial up blitzes and force quarterbacks to make quick decisions. Notre Dame's offensive line has been solid, but Book will likely have plenty of pressure in his face against the Tigers. He and offensive coordinator Chip Long are ready.
“One thing I'm going to work on is just getting that ball out quick, getting it to our playmakers,” Book said. “I say that every week, I got two 6-5 guys (wide receivers Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool) on the outside, so I'm going to get them the ball and let them go make plays.”
Of course, beyond making plays on the field, being a quarterback is also about leading and being a spokesman for the team. With so many fifth-year seniors on this Notre Dame team, Book hasn't had to speak for his team as often as some other quarterbacks, but when he has, he's sounded the right notes, as he did when asked recently about the Irish's underdog status.
“There's always doubters, there's always a lot of people who hate Notre Dame,” Book said. “That's just how it's going to be. There's always a big target on our back here when you come play for Notre Dame, so we're just going to use that to fuel us and we're going to be more confident.”