SAN DIEGO — Ian Book, the emerging junior quarterback for Notre Dame, contended there was no point in “freaking out.”
That was easy for him to say. He was going to have his hands on the football, controlling the fate of the Fighting Irish.
Meanwhile, it was stomach-in-knots terror for the Notre Dame faithful fewer than two weeks ago as they watched their team’s national championship hopes vanishing.
The Irish trailed Pittsburgh 14-12 midway through the fourth quarter. In fact, they had been behind the Panthers the entire game.
There are situations that make or break a season, and define a team. This was one of them.
Of the attitude in the Notre Dame huddle at that point, senior center and captain Sam Mustipher later recalled for reporters: “Let’s go win the game. There was nothing left to do. We understand what’s at stake every time we go out on the field.”
Six plays is all it took for Notre Dame to get control of the wheel and steer its swerving season back on the road.
Moving on a drive that started at his own 20, Book converted on third-and-5 at the Pitt 47 with a 12-yard pass to his favorite target, Miles Boykin. On the next play, Boykin managed to run out of the jersey tug of a defender on a post route and Book laid the ball in perfectly to him for a 35-yard score that ultimately sealed a 19-14 victory that kept Notre Dame unbeaten at 7-0.
Irish eyes twinkled again.
“I don’t know a team that’s won the national championship that hasn’t had to come from behind at some point in the season or play in a close game,” Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “That happened to be today for us.”
One day later — after No. 2 Georgia, No. 7 Washington and No. 8 Penn State all lost — Notre Dame crossed into golden territory, into playoff land — from fifth to fourth in both national polls.
It got even better for the Irish. As they took a week off and country singer Garth Brooks braved rain and lightning to perform a concert in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, Notre Dame moved up to No. 3, thanks to Ohio State’s loss to Purdue.
As only one of three unbeaten teams in the top nine — with five games remaining against unranked schools — Notre Dame’s path is clear to a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff: win the rest and they’re in.
That part of the journey begins today, when the Fighting Irish play their annual game against Navy (2-5) before an expected sellout crowd of about 66,000 at SDCCU Stadium.
The challenges would seem to get more intense after the Midshipmen, with matchups against Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse and USC. None is currently ranked, but all have winning records.
No top-4 team has a more grueling road to the finish, at least in terms of travel. The Irish will traverse more than 10,000 miles over the last five games, in large part due to the San Diego trip and playing Nov. 24 at USC.
No. 1 Alabama? The Crimson Tide could almost walk it: 1,300 miles.
As an independent that doesn’t have a conference championship game, Notre Dame’s worthiness for the playoff always will be questioned in some corners. But this season the Irish have produced a resume that may be quibble-proof.
Starting at No. 11 in the preseason polls, Notre Dame won at Michigan (currently No. 5) in the opener, then eked out victories over Ball State and Vanderbilt.
Those close calls produced a quarterback change, with Book replacing senior Brandon Wimbush. Book’s influence has been considerable, with Notre Dame outscoring its next four opponents by 29 (Wake Forest), 21 (Stanford), 22 (Virginia Tech) and five (Pitt).
After the win in a hostile environment at Virginia Tech — by the widest margin against a ranked opponent on the road since 1966 — Boykin said, “We’re not at our ceiling yet at all. We’re still pushing. We’re still getting better every day, and I’m just looking forward to it.”
Last season, Notre Dame got off to an 8-1 start, but faded when it mattered, losing to Miami and Stanford. (At 9-3, the Irish were selected to the Citrus Bowl and beat LSU 21-17).
Irish head coach Brian Kelly contends he has a more seasoned team.
“The mental development of the group is where we’re different,” Kelly said. “Last year we could tell you why you win. (Now) they can tell you how to win. There’s a big difference between how you win and why you win.
“There’s an attention to detail and you can’t be sloppy. You’ve got to be smart. It’s a different group, a much more mature group.”
That has apparently extended to its coach.
In his ninth season at Notre Dame, Kelly has been known for a fiery demeanor. On a couple of occasions, in front of national TV audiences, he’s lost credibility points with red-faced tirades against assistant coaches and players.
He was defiant about his personality in the early years at Notre Dame, but he insists he’s changed his outlook.
“Notre Dame is unique,” Kelly said this week. “You can still be an emotional coach; you can still have a fiery side to you. It’s just that at Notre Dame it’s a lot more difficult to do it because there’s a camera on you the whole time.
“I had to make a conscious decision that if I was at a different place, I could still have that and still lead, but you can’t do it here because it’s not good.”
It’s easy to be sunny when you’re 7-0.