SOUTH BEND – The best stretch of Notre Dame's season continued today.
For the third straight game, Notre Dame dominated its opponent (outside of a little uncertainty in the first quarter) on offense and defense, outgaining Boston College by more than 300 yards and winning 40-7 to pick up its ninth victory of the season. The Irish are rolling as they head into the season finale against Stanford and they are making a strong (though probably futile, based on last week's CFP rankings) case for a spot in a New Year's Six bowl.
For all the ink that was spilled wondering whether Notre Dame would bounce back from its ugly loss against Michigan, the Irish have given fans as emphatic of a response as anyone could possibly have expected: four straight wins, three by at least 31 points. That's a testament to the leadership of this team, which wouldn't allow the season to spiral out of control even when the ultimate goal, a national championship, went away. The loss to Michigan could have deflated this team and instead it appears to have energized it.
That's especially impressive as we into the last stages of the season. Notre Dame has made it an emphasis to be fresh and strong at the end of the season and with today's victory the Irish have captured eight straight games in November. Winning in this month, when most teams are feeling worn down, has been a goal for Notre Dame since the start of 2018 and that has been accomplished. Linebacker Drew White used the New England Patriots as an example of a team the Irish are trying to emulate, pointing out that the Patriots often start relatively slowly before finishing the season strong.
"November's hard, any college football player will tell you that," White said. "It's the end of the season, it's the end of the semester, you've got school work, you're body's hurting, mentally you're worn down. So what really has kept us (going) is the captains. The captains have taken charge, brought energy to practice, telling us to keep fighting.
"This is what we want. Great teams win in November. ... We wanted to be the best defense as a whole in November and I think we've grown into that."
While the defense was terrific today, forcing two turnovers, adding four sacks and pitching a second-half shutout, the offense more than held up its end of the bargain, as well. Quarterback Ian Book was terrific for the third straight week, going 26 for 40 for 239 yards and three touchdowns through the air and running 12 times for 66 yards. Boston College came after him in the early going and he did a decent job of dancing away from pressure and scrambling for valuable yards, although he did miss more than a few open receivers when he was scrambling. The next step in his development is definitely to keep his eyes downfield more often as he runs; there are some huge plays available on those scrambles.
Still, even with that deficiency, Book has improved so much that there are now questions as to whether he will return next year for his final season of eligibility or declare for the NFL Draft. He gave a cryptic "we'll see" response to the question after the game, insisting he is focused on winning this season first. That was exactly what coach Brian Kelly wanted to hear. Kelly said that he hadn't sat down with Book and talked about the quarterback's plans for next season yet, but they will speak about it after the matchup with Stanford.
"I think what he should do is get all the information first," Kelly said. We'll get the NFL evaluation in, get all that. We're still kind of in the passing lane right now. We're trying to go through some traffic (games), so it's really too hard to sit back and make those decisions at this time.
"You know I'm going to recruit him," Kelly added, laughing. "I want him back. But that's not my decision. ... I have asked him to hold this (decision) to the side and please focus on playing the position of quarterback. He's done a great job of that."
It really is remarkable to hear Book talked about this way after the discussion following the loss to Michigan was all about whether the redshirt junior would be benched (Kelly was adamant there was never any chance of that happening). Within four weeks the consensus has shifted so much that it would be disappointing for Notre Dame fans if Book did decide to declare for the draft, even though Phil Jurkovec is waiting in the wings.
Senior Day is also a good time to step back and take stock of how healthy Notre Dame's program is as a whole. The Irish won't win a national championship this season, but fans that write off the year as a failure because of that are missing the bigger picture. With a win over Stanford (or in the bowl game), Notre Dame will have four seasons of double-digit wins in the last five years and three in a row. That speaks to a healthy, consistently successful program of a type that Notre Dame had not been for more than two decades prior to this stretch. It's a significant achievement and shouldn't be glossed over because of the lack of championships, frustrating as that dearth of trophies is.