Blue and Gold Illustrated

Dec 19, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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30 DEC. 19, 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED I an Book was confused in his ela- tion. As Book greeted Brian Kelly af- ter his 28-yard touchdown pass to Javon McKinley six seconds before halftime, he expressed his surprise to his head coach at a Syracuse de- fensive call that, in his mind, handed Notre Dame the score and a 24-7 lead the moment the ball was snapped. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees' directions on the play were to hand the ball off if Syracuse played zone, or throw a go route to McKin- ley in a likely one-on-one matchup if the Orange were in man. When they unveiled the latter, Book let the arrow fly. No suspense in his mind. "McKinley went up, made a great catch," Kelly recalled. "As Ian came running off the field, he says, 'I can't believe they pressed him and gave us that touchdown.'" You can picture a grin on Book's face as wide as Touchdown Jesus' arms. This is the conviction of a quar- terback with two unbeaten regular seasons to his name on his way to be- coming Notre Dame's all-time wins leader, with 30, which he did when the Irish (10-0, 9-0 ACC) polished off Syracuse 45-21 to plausibly lock in a College Football Playoff spot. The conviction of a master of coverages. And the bond between a powerful, co-dependent pairing formed after two paths finally fused in their fifth college seasons. All told, Book and McKinley linked up seven times for 111 yards and three touchdowns, the fourth time McKinley has cleared triple- digits in 2020. That's one more 100- yard day than Chase Claypool had in 2019 or Miles Boykin produced in 2018. After beginning the year with two dormant games, McKinley leads Notre Dame with 37 catches and 660 receiving yards. "If they want to work on a throw, they're staying after and practicing it," junior tight end Tommy Tremble said. "One thing they really wanted to work on was the deep balls. You saw it today." McKinley is averaging 17.8 yards per reception and has 12 catches of at least 20 yards. Entering the season, he had 11 catches his entire career. All that was missing from his late-career breakout was finding the end zone. He had zero touchdowns on his first 34 grabs. Each of his last three recep- tions has gone for a score, all from at least 20 yards out. "We're at that stage now where Ian doesn't believe, if you press McKin- ley, that anybody can defend him and that he's going to put the ball where it needs to be," Kelly said. "That kind of recognition, belief and trust is where this offense has grown throughout this season, where that didn't exist for, what, four years? It now exists, and that's why this of- fense is so much better than it was earlier in the year." Notre Dame's offense doesn't get to that point, though, without Book reaching back for another gear. Un- til sometime in October, or perhaps Nov. 7, Book's march toward the record he felled Saturday was met with screams for more by Irish fans who didn't want to hear Kelly hush the noise by labeling him a winner after bumpy games. Now, it's hard to think of a more fitting descriptor after his roles in stirring victories. As Book has risen, so has the entire offense. Everything ties back to the quarterback, but this day, his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, was about Book and McKinley. One was a class headliner, with only two other players ranked higher than him. The other was set to play in relative ob- scurity at Washington State, his lone Power Five offer, before Notre Dame called. In that context alone, it makes sense that after four seasons one player was a multi-year starter and the other was buried. Except the or- der is reversed. Book, an unremark- able three-star quarterback recruit in the class after Notre Dame signed top-70 overall player Brandon Wim- bush, was a starter on a College Foot- ball Playoff team as a junior in 2018. McKinley, meanwhile, was a top-60 prospect with one major injury and zero career receptions. Recruiting rankings and Wim- bush's presence indicated they might not do much work together. Oppo- site career arcs three years in said the same. Until this season, when Book returned because he felt there was more out there for him. Without Claypool and tight end Cole Kmet, he'd need new helping hands. The idea of McKinley as the steadi- est of his new cast seemed far-fetched in the offseason given his track re- cord. As it did through two games, when McKinley ran 46 routes and produced one catch for seven yards despite playing 100 snaps, the most among Notre Dame's receivers. Studying Book and McKinley's in- tertwined rise may be a chicken-or- egg situation, but all that matters is this: Since Notre Dame's two-week pause and first two games, McKin- ley is averaging 93 yards per out- ing, which would be top-30 nation- ally. He's now a big-play source for a quarterback producing more big plays than ever before. "Javon's been doing an unbeliev- able job," Book said. "It's just trust. I trust he's in the right spot at the right time, and we showed that tonight." With Notre Dame's biggest games awaiting — three more of them, if you ask Book — there's no reason to stop pumping that well now. ✦ Ian Book, Javon McKinley Each Other's Difference-Makers ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at Book (above) and McKinley connected for three touchdowns against Syracuse, continuing on their season-long chemistry. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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