Maybe it was Ian Book’s second touchdown pass last Saturday against Stanford at Notre Dame Stadium.
No, it was his third, or perhaps his fourth.
Somewhere in the mix, with this backup-turned-starter at quarterback for the Fighting Irish scrambling and throwing his sixth-ranked team toward 5-0 along the way to a huge game Saturday night on the road against No. 24 Virginia Tech, I kept thinking about You Know Who of Notre Dame lore.
So I called You Know Who.
Is it just me, Joe Montana, or does Book remind you of you in so many ways?
“I have not seen much of him play,” said Montana, typing his response with his Pro Football Hall of Fame fingers by email from his home in northern California. “All I can say is that he seems to have stabilized that offense, and now they are much more of a threat. He may not be the runner they always like now there, but he looks like he has settled into the offense.”
Uh, yes. And did I mention Book resembles Montana, the 6-foot-2 king of dramatic victories? He was around 200 pounds when I covered him for the San Francisco Examiner in the 1980s during the start of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty.
In case you’re wondering, Book is two inches shorter than Montana, but he also weighs around 200 pounds.
Anyway, I was born and raised in South Bend, Ind., home of the Irish, so I bleed blue and gold. I’ve rarely missed hearing or watching a Notre Dame football game since I took my first breath in town at the same St. Joseph Hospital where George Gipp (you know, Ronald Reagan, Knute Rockne and “Win one for the Gipper) died.
The point is, I remember that afternoon well in 1977 when Montana left the bench as a junior against Purdue early that season to pump life into a listless Notre Dame offense that contributed to a loss the week before at Ole Miss.
Book also is a junior. After the Irish opened this season at home with a 24-17 victory over then 14th-ranked Michigan, they kept winning, but they struggled offensively against Ball State, picked to finish last in its division in the Mid-American Conference, and Vanderbilt, which isn’t exactly Alabama in the SEC. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly shrugged over Brandon Wimbush’s credentials as his starter for the second consecutive season, and he used Book throughout the Irish’s next game at Wake Forest.
The Notre Dame offense stopped struggling. Big time. Under Book, the Irish scored 56 points against Wake Forest. Then they hammered Stanford 38-17 to keep alive their hopes for receiving something like the $6 million each of the four teams got last season for making the College Football Playoff.
As for Montana in 1977, he entered that Purdue game in the fourth quarter with the Irish down by 10.
They won by seven.
“I just know we put the first Notre Dame quarterback out of the game, because he wasn’t playing well. The second guy broke his collarbone, and they even put the first guy back in, and it still wasn’t working for them, and then they went to Joe,” Keena Turner told me over the phone this week from northern California. He was a Purdue linebacker back then. Three years later, he became Montana’s teammate for a decade with the 49ers.
“Joe and I really didn’t talk about that game much through the years, not unless he brought I up, because there wasn’t much to talk about on my end,” Turner said, laughing. “Obviously, Notre Dame is off to a great start right now, and I haven’t paid much attention to them, but there’s only one Joe.”
No question there. Montana has four Super Bowl rings, and he was noted in the NFL for his ability to rally his team from behind with consistency. He began to flash that ability at Notre Dame when he was a backup. As a sophomore in 1975 (before he would redshirt the next year after separating his shoulder), he led the Irish to late come-from-behind victories against North Carolina and Air Force in consecutive games on the road.
Book was a sophomore last year, and get this: After Wimbush couldn’t start during an away game, Book left the bench to take Notre Dame to a 33-10 victory.
At North Carolina.
The Irish didn’t play Air Force last year, but they did face LSU in the Citrus Bowl, where Book replaced Wimbush to rally the Irish to victory in the final seconds.
But back to Montana, who remained the Notre Dame starter in 1977 after he entered the Purdue game. He took the Irish on a nine-game winning streak, and they scored 38 points or more six times during that period, including during their 38-10 whacking of Texas in the Cotton Bowl to win the national championship.