SOUTH BEND – Brian Kelly was in a good mood after this game.
Kelly joked around with the media in the postgame press conference, smiling easily as he discussed Notre Dame's 52-0 beatdown of Bowling Green. Of course, there were nits to pick from the Irish's performance, but Kelly's mood told the story of how well he thought his team played. He pushed them all week to show that they wouldn't overlook any opponent, that they wanted to be great. By all accounts, including the one on the field this afternoon, they passed that test with flying colors.
"I felt like they did a very good job," Kelly said of his team. "Certainly there wasn't perfection out there today but there was a level and a standard of play. Today went the way it should have went, and could have gone better certainly, but given the fact that they played two very good opponents in the previous two weeks and had USC on the horizon I thought that they prepared extremely well during the week, and then I thought they went out and were very businesslike in the manner that they played today."
Great teams win games like this without much of a fight. Notre Dame has had two games this season against completely overmatched opponents and has won both games (New Mexico and today) by 52 points. Neither game has been a fight. It's not yet clear whether this Notre Dame team is great, but it certainly has the mindset of a great team. It's a significant contrast from last season, when the Irish let teams such as Ball State and Vanderbilt hang around.
There was no hanging around for Bowling Green today. The Falcons got a three-and-out on the first Irish possession of the game and Notre Dame punted just one other time the rest of the game. Ian Book threw five touchdown passes on seven drives in the first half and put any thoughts of an upset away early.
Book was terrific all day, playing exactly the way he has to on a regular basis for the Irish to be successful. He did the two things that he has struggled to do all season: throw the ball downfield and stay in the pocket to go through his progression. Those issues are interconnected and with an assist from an outstanding offensive line performance, Book had no problem with either today.
"My job is to get the ball out there on the perimeter," Book said. "We've got some really skilled guys out there. It's my job to get the ball to them, and I was definitely happy with the way the O-line protected today. They did great job. I had a lot of time. I was able to push the ball downfield, and Coach (Chip) Long talks about it all the time, great players make big plays, and that's what we needed.
"We had a few of those tonight and we're going to need it for the rest of the season."
Book said he has focused specifically in recent weeks on staying in the pocket and going through his progression before looking to scramble. It was clear he needed work in that area and he was much better at it today. On one touchdown to Javon McKinley late in the first half, the quarterback was behind the line for nearly six seconds before finding McKinley wide open. You could almost see his brain screaming at him to move, but he hung in and threw a perfect pass. The Irish need more of that from him and if they can get it this offense can be really dangerous.
"That's really what I wanted to work on is first, second, third reads," Book said. "We have these designed plays, they're going to work, I've just got to get through my progression and get the ball to the guys.
"Just more studying, going out there and practicing, challenging myself every day to go through those reads, and really just trusting in my eyes. We practice it. I know what's going on. It's about translating from practice to the games and going out there and doing it."
Obviously, it's easier to do that when the offensive line stonewalls any and all pressure as the Irish did today. The real test will come against USC and Michigan in the next two games. Book showed today he knows what to do, now he just has to do it against better competition.
The only real downside of this performance for the Irish was some defensive lapses on third down, giving up 10-15 yards on roll-outs by the quarterback, plays that will go for much larger gains against the Trojans and Wolverines. The defense wasn't particularly sharp in the second quarter and Kelly said the Irish have some areas to clean up despite getting enough pressure on Falcons quarterbacks to mask those mistakes. There were too many big holes in the run game, as well.
Outside of those small issues, however, this game played out about as well as the Irish could have hoped. Even backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec was excellent, going 5 for 7 for 79 yards and adding four carries for 42 yards, including a 19-yard scamper in which he showed off the athleticism and shiftiness that made him a dual-threat in high school. After looking so lost in the spring game and early in fall camp, Jurkovec has improved by leaps and bounds and the future of the quarterback position is beginning to feel secure in South Bend.
"You can tell he had so much fun out there," Book said of Jurkovec. "He works hard day in and day out in practice, so it's great to see him go out there and have success, lead the offense and just have total command. That's what we're asked to do at the quarterback position. But then to see him have a great run, too, he's really athletic, he's faster than people think, and again, just really, really happy for him.
The Irish can be really happy for themselves after this game. Brian Kelly certainly was.