SOUTH BEND – After the week Ian Book had, it would be difficult to write a more fitting ending to Notre Dame's win over Virginia Tech than what transpired with 27 seconds left today.
Book didn't erase all of the criticism coming his way when he capped off a game-winning 87-yard touchdown drive with a 7-yard sprint into the end zone, but he did ensure that the doubters will be quieter this week following Notre Dame's 21-20 victory.
Book, who spent the last six days hearing the more impatient segments of the Notre Dame fanbase calling for him to be benched following a disastrous performance against Michigan, finished with 391 total yards and accounted for three touchdowns. To hear Brian Kelly, who has been steadfastly in Book's corner, tell it, the criticism was always over the top.
"If (Book) played for the New York Giants he wouldn't get as much as what went on around here," Kelly said. "I mean, it was way overblown. Notre Dame means so much to him, and being the quarterback here, he handled it so well. He came in my office on Sunday, Monday. And I thought he did some things this week in practice that allowed us to reach some areas that we hadn't been able to reach before and I thought we saw signs of it and I think he's only going to get better from it."
Book still had some notable warts against the Hokies. He threw two interceptions (one on a badly underthrown ball that probably should have been a touchdown and the other because of a miscommunication with tight end Cole Kmet) and his pocket presence was still very shaky at times, even though the offensive line played a terrific game today and gave him plenty of time to throw. Despite those flaws, there were definite signs of improvement. The Irish threw the ball deep more than they have in any other game this season and Book made some very good throws, which he's capable of doing when he sets his feet. Late in the game, especially on the final drive, he did a better job of hanging in and looking for a receiver before scrambling. In short, notwithstanding a few hiccups, he played the way Notre Dame needs him to play for this offense to be successful. The score won't show it because of three untimely turnovers in Virginia Tech territory, but this was one of his better games of the season. Coming on the heels of the disaster against Michigan, that's huge.
"I'm just an extremely confident person, but I also just truly believe in everyone on the offense, on my whole entire team," Book said. "I knew we could do it. Last week was last week. We forgot about that. We moved on. I'm just confident in all the guys. We work so hard every day and we're playing for each other and that's when you can make some pretty awesome things happen."
Book didn't do it all by himself on the last drive, either. He had plenty of help, especially from Chase Claypool. All season, my biggest desired fix for the Notre Dame offense (other than Book improving his pocket presence) was for the Irish to throw the ball to Claypool more often. Today, they made a concerted effort to do that (17 targets) and the 6-foot-4 receiver responded with eight catches for 118 yards, including two huge grabs on the final drive. His toe tap along the sideline for 13 yards on the final drive was maybe the best catch by a Notre Dame player this season, demonstrating superb footwork and awareness. The Irish don't win this game if Claypool doesn't make his presence known. If opposing teams are going to put him in single coverage, the Irish could do worse than just throw it up and hope because Claypool has the advantage in those situations most of the time.
"He's a special player, he can do special things," said cornerback Troy Pride Jr., who has spent all season facing off with Claypool in practice. "Just to see (the catch along the sideline), it was crazy, I'm like, 'Don't need to review that, just keep going because he caught it.'"
It will probably get lost in the glow of the game-winning drive, but Notre Dame's defense deserves a major commendation for keeping the game close in the second half. After getting pushed around by Michigan (and USC to a point), the defensive front found its footing and held the Hokies to just 2.8 yards per rush. Quarterback Quincy Patterson II went only 9 for 28 and looked off balance most of the day. The Irish D held Virginia Tech to just 240 total yards and kept the game from getting away as the offense turned the ball over in the second half. After a missed field goal in the fourth quarter, leaving the Irish down by six with 7:02 left, the defense responded, stuffing two run plays and coming up with a huge third-down sack to give Book and Co. some time to put together the winning drive.
"Our defense did a really good job today," Kelly said. "I think (defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) and the staff had a great plan. ... We played with five defensive linemen, prepared for runs on third down. So we were man-to-man, our corners gave up some plays, but they were on an island all day. And Pride and (Donte) Vaughn, they battled, they hung in there, and at the end of the day they did what we asked them to do in this game plan and they held up for us."
Notre Dame spent the whole week talking about finding its identity again after it was absent against Michigan. Kelly said that even though the execution wasn't always great, he thought the identity of this team returned this afternoon. He saw physicality, he saw desire, he saw passion. Kelly seemed to know that fans will be upset because of the turnovers and the near-avoidance of a disastrous defeat, but he struck a defiant tone in the postgame press conference. He was clearly proud of the way his team responded after the loss to Michigan and hopeful that this group still has room to grow.
The Irish came away with a win and, for now, that's enough.