SOUTH BEND – Chase Claypool revealed tonight, in a matter-of-fact tone, that in eighth grade he scored 10 touchdowns in one game. As impressive as that is, it pales in comparison to his performance against Navy today, when he pulled in four touchdown passes against the Midshipmen in barely two-and-half quarters of play, going over, around and through a group of undersized and overwhelmed defenders while leading the Irish to a 52-20 win at Notre Dame Stadium.
Back in fall camp, it was clear that Claypool was bigger, faster and more athletic than just about anyone on the field for the Irish. But he'd always been that way; the question was whether, after taking significant strides last season, he could translate those eye-popping physical tools into the performance of a true No. 1 wide receiver. It took about half the season, but he has finally settled into that role and he gives Notre Dame a weapon the likes of which few other teams in college football can call upon. Claypool has posted at least 97 receiving yards in three straight games and has pulled down five touchdowns in the last two weeks. Some of those, such as the 47-yard bomb he caught when matched up against a poor linebacker today, were easy, but others were not. The more difficult group included his final touchdown this afternoon, a 20-yard score in which Claypool was well-covered along the side of the end zone, but Ian Book put the ball where only the receiver could get it and he pulled down a twisting reception with seemingly little difficulty.
"I think trust is a big thing," Claypool said." I think (Book) fully trusts me now. Not that he didn't before, but he knows exactly where to put the ball and chemistry, like I said.
"He's throwing the ball up and giving me a chance to make a play. I'm happy that I'm able to make some plays for him just to build that trust a little more."
Claypool has been nearly unstoppable the last couple of weeks, but it's a credit to Book that he's getting the big wide receiver the ball. The much-maligned quarterback has been at his best two weeks in a row, throwing nine touchdown passes and generally looking like the passer that was a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy prior to the season.
I've always thought Book was capable of making throws downfield. He showed that last season. The issue was whether he could stand in the pocket on a consistent basis and wait for the play to develop down the field before he took off and ran with it. For most of the season, he has struggled in that area. The last two weeks, however, he has been much more poised at facing down the rush and that has allowed him to make throws that he wouldn't have even attempted earlier in the year. Part of the credit for that improvement has to go to the offensive line, which has been terrific against undersized fronts from Duke and Navy, but Book also looks much more confident stepping into his throws than he has all year. Coach Brian Kelly said he always that Book was capable of what he's doing now.
"I knew what he was going to give us," Kelly said. "I mean, if it's Major League Baseball he had a little slump. I knew what he was capable of. We maintained confidence in him. The only thing I ever said to him is, Don't lose confidence in yourself. Stay confident in yourself.
"He works so hard. He does all the right things. It was just a matter of there was too much noise and he had to find a mechanism as the quarterback at Notre Dame to eliminate all the noise that comes with it."
The two throws of Book's that stand out to me are the 70-yard touchdown to Braden Lenzy and the 27-yard completion to Lawrence Keys III along the sideline early in the third quarter. The former was just a beautiful deep ball that traveled about 45 yards in the air, hitting the speedy Lenzy in stride for a score. It's a throw that should put to rest the idea that Book has insufficient arm strength; it was just a flick of the wrist. The latter was an NFL-level pass as Book rolled out to his left. He threw across his body and hit Keys in a tiny window along the sideline far down the field. Just weeks ago, I would never have expected Book would be capable of such a throw.
"A lot of people have been on me a little bit for the deep ball," Book said. "I've always been confident that I can throw the deep ball. It's just getting the right looks and letting it rip. Nothing special. It's not like every day we go and everyone is like, 'You got to hit the deep ball always. It's not like that.' I know I can do it and I'm confident, and I know those guys are going to get the ball when I throw it."
This was maybe Notre Dame's best overall performance of the season and the Irish appear to be hitting their stride as they approach the end of the year. Kelly said that this team has at times struggled to block out criticism because it cares so much, but recently it has gotten into a good mindset and it is focused much more inward. It's a recipe for success and the Irish are a formidable team right now, with Claypool and Book leading the way.
"It's a good football team," Kelly said. "Playing without four really good players (Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey). Teams that lose four players like that, two of them captains, usually crumble in November. They're playing at a higher level.
"These guys, they're in the present. All they care about, all they talked about is, 'Guys, we've got three more to get. It doesn't matter who we play, it's how we play for the next three games.'"