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Sluggish start hardly bothers Notre Dame, Ian Book in 45-31 win at Boston College

Ian Book Boston College

CHESTNUT HILL, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 14: Ian Book #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish makes a pass against the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium on November 14, 2020 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame’s slow start granted brief credence to embellished storylines of Phil Jurkovec’s revenge, 1993’s reprisal and an Irish letdown, but Notre Dame’s three-year starting quarterback ruined all three narratives as the No. 2 Irish found their form in a 45-31 victory at Boston College.

Fifth-year quarterback Ian Book filled the stat sheet against his former understudy, throwing for three touchdowns and 283 yards while completing 20 of 27 passes, adding another score and 85 yards on the ground. If there was any doubt about who was the better quarterback Saturday, Book settled it definitively, playing so well Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) could have turned to his current backup in the fourth quarter.

“It starts with his command of the offense now,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “You can see him continue to grow each and every week. When your quarterback is playing at a high level, it gives you a great chance to be a championship-caliber football team.”

All three of Book’s touchdown passes went to graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek, repeatedly using his 6-foot-3 frame to out-body defensive backs. Similarly, Notre Dame’s offensive line bulldozed the Eagles defense throughout the afternoon, paving the way for 278 rushing yards. Book’s scampers led the way, with Kyren Williams (nine carries for 37 yards), Chris Tyree (17 carries for 74 yards) and C’Bo Flemister (10 carries for 53 yards) splitting the main workload. Flemister found the end zone twice before leaving with an injury Kelly deemed not serious, joining Williams on the sideline, the latter having earned a “precautionary” break with his season thus far. That physical dominance allowed the Irish to largely not worry about losing three fumbles, one each from Skowronek, Williams and Tyree.

Jurkovec started well, completing 4-of-6 passes for 51 yards on an efficient touchdown drive that concluded with a risky scoring pass to star receiver Zay Flowers. That moment of concerning ingenuity represented Jurkovec’s ceiling. He did not score again until the closing minutes of the game and went 14-of-34 for 221 yards with an interception after that opening salvo.

“We were a bit tired on defense,” Kelly said. “You could see that today. It wasn’t our best performance defensively.”

After the game, Eagles head coach Jeff Hafley revealed Jurkovec separated his shoulder two weeks ago at Clemson.

Despite the apparent fatigue just a week removed from an exhausting double-overtime classic, Notre Dame dominated the Eagles, though trailing for 7:09, more than three times as long as the Irish chased No. 1 Clemson a week ago. Notre Dame gained 561 yards to Boston College’s 357, held the Eagles to 3.4 yards per rush and 4-of-11 on third downs.

The Irish now reach their idle week, after six consecutive weeks with games, worn out but victorious, having done away with the most unnecessary and unfulfilled storylines of the season in one dominating performance.

It will be forgotten in Book’s pile of stats in a blowout that focused as much on his counterpart as him, but Book’s second touchdown was a ripe example of what has made him so effective throughout his career and particularly of late. The term “escapability” is a football-ism readily recognized, escape-ability. But what does it really mean?

It means when a quarterback has decent, but not stellar, protection, he can still keep the play alive. It is different than outright mobility or a dual-threat approach because escapability in its purest form keeps the play alive downfield. The receivers work into their scramble-drill protocols, and the quarterback keeps his eyes downfield.

“He’s a unique player in that he has great escapability,” Kelly said. “But he’s also got a great sense of when to take off. …

“Clearly the receiving corps is doing a great job. We’re getting play now from all of the receivers, pitching in, and this is what we needed to elevate the play, so [Book] is going to benefit from that.”

There is not much a defense can do in that situation. Notre Dame’s offensive line gives Book time to start with. When he bides more, the defensive backs are left in coverage too long. The Irish receivers understanding their duties ruins that secondary’s chances of winning the snap.

“We’re starting to gel right now,” Book said. “That’s chemistry. It’s understanding where people are going to be at the right time, what defense they’re going to bring to certain plays.

“[The receivers] did an unbelievable job. Every time I scrambled, they’re starting to understand the play could go on for a few seconds longer than it might normally feel like. They’re doing a good job of coming back to me, making plays and shaking off the DB. The play is never dead until that whistle blows. We obviously were able to make some huge plays tonight after I extended it outside of the pocket.”

Book stepped up in a game in which he would have been excoriated if he struggled, despite leading Notre Dame’s upset of No. 1 Clemson just a week ago. Kelly gave the game ball to Flemister, increasingly handling the grinding, physical carries the Irish relish to wear out opponents.

But Skowronek scored three touchdowns. Rare is the day a receiver scores three touchdowns, and rarer still is the day he does so but this space does not recognize him as the Player of the Game.

“He plays with an edge,” Kelly said. “... He just has a skill set. He’s got great size and length. We like the matchups we get with him, certainly in the red zone, as you could tell. He also plays with a swagger.”

Notre Dame might like its matchups with Skowronek in the red zone, but when it settled for a field goal on its first possession — a drive that looked to be a tone-setter until it utterly stalled in the red zone, the only such blemish of the day — Skowronek had to seek out his head coach to plead for the ball.

Ben Skowronek Boston College

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - NOVEMBER 14: Notre Dame wide receiver Ben Skowronek (11) dances into the end zone chased by Boston College Eagles defensive back Brandon Sebastian (10) during a game between the Boston College Eagles and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 14, 2020, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“He wants the ball,” Kelly said. “He reminded us when we settled for a field goal, he had a great matchup. That’s why we immediately came back to him the next time we were in the red zone.”

That’s how you end up with three touchdowns on just five catches; you establish a niche and make it known you take pride in that role.

The Irish still lack a game-breaker — junior Braden Lenzy should return from a hamstring procedure after the idle week — but pairing Skowronek with fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley (five catches for 48 yards) has given Book the needed outlets for his moments of escapability.

“All those guys just fighting, keep fighting, the play is still going on,” Book said. “I just feel like the chemistry between the receivers and myself is really getting there, and it feels great.”

100 wins as the Notre Dame head coach, a number matched by Lou Holtz and exceeded by only Knute Rockne. In theory, Kelly could crack Rockne’s 105 this year. But for now, 100 career wins, no matter what the NCAA might say.

“It means I’ve had a lot of really good players, a lot of really good coaches, and I’ve been really fortunate to be here at Notre Dame for that long, to win that many games at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I’m really, really fortunate to have the longevity here.

“You’ve gotta win that many games. That’s where you have to be if you want to still be here at Notre Dame coaching.”

In a fitting coincidence, the last time the Irish broke 45 in consecutive weeks was the final two home games of Holtz’s career, a 60-6 win against Pittsburgh followed by a 62-0 rout of Rutgers.

28 of Kelly’s wins have come with Book as his starting quarterback, putting Book one win away from tying the Irish record shared by Brady Quinn, Ron Powlus and Tom Clements. 23 more came with current offensive coordinator Tommy Rees at quarterback.

First Quarter9:39 — Notre Dame field goal. Jonathan Doerer 23 yards. Notre Dame 3, Boston College 0. (13 plays, 70 yards, 5:21)5:03 — Boston College touchdown. Zay Flowers 4-yard pass from Phil Jurkovec. Aaron Boumerhi PAT good. Boston College 7, Notre Dame 3. (10 plays, 80 yards, 4:30)3:56 — Boston College field goal. Boumerhi 41 yards. Boston College 10, Notre Dame 3. (4 plays, -6 yards, 0:56)0:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ben Skowronek 10-yard pass from Ian Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Boston College 10. (8 plays, 77 yards, 3:45)

Second Quarter12:41 — Boston College field goal. Boumerhi 31 yards. Boston College 13, Notre Dame 10. (9 plays, 44 yards, 2:30)10:24 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Boston College 13. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:17)5:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Skowronek 13-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Boston College 13. (7 plays, 50 yards, 3:32)3:12 — Boston College field goal. Boumerhi 35 yards. Notre Dame 24, Boston College 16. (6 plays, 57 yards, 2:31)0:04 — Notre Dame touchdown. Skowronek 7-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Boston College 16. (9 plays, 49 yards, 2:05)

Third Quarter6:34 — Notre Dame touchdown. Flemister 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Boston College 16. (4 plays, 43 yards, 1:57)0:35 — Boston College touchdown. David Bailey 3-yard rush. Boumehri PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Boston College 23. (12 plays, 80 yards, 5:59)

Fourth Quarter12:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 6-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Boston College 23. (7 plays, 70 yards, 3:10)
4:09 — Boston College touchdown. Hunter Long 8-yard pass from Jurkovec. Travis Levy 2-point conversion rush good. Notre Dame 45, Boston College 31. (6 plays, 70 yards, 1:28)

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