Can Notre Dame survive without star quarterback Ian Book?

Notre Dame’s Ian Book has a rib injury and won’t play this weekend. (AP)
Notre Dame’s Ian Book has a rib injury and won’t play this weekend. (AP)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – After starting out 3-0, including a stirring home win against Michigan to open the season, Notre Dame found itself at a bit of a first-world crossroads. Its offense sputtered in Week 2 against Ball State with a scoreless fourth quarter and flatlined against Vanderbilt the following week with six second-half points.

Coordinator Chip Long’s offense is predicated on rhythm, quick passes and tempo, and quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s 55.5 percent completion rate failed to get the Irish consistently in sync. “It got to the point where we were winning,” Long told Yahoo Sports in his office last month, “but we felt like we were losing.”

Head coach Brian Kelly worried the offensive inertia would creep into other areas of the program, like forcing a strain on the defense. But the decision to insert backup quarterback Ian Book into the lineup for a late September game at Wake Forest wasn’t as obvious in real time as it has become in retrospect. Wimbush was a blue-chip recruit, revered by his teammates and held a 12-3 record as a starter.

Nearly six weeks after Kelly and Long executed the season’s riskiest decision with aplomb, they face the ghost of the staccato early season offense they left behind. Irish Sports Daily reported Thursday morning that Book will miss No. 3 Notre Dame’s home game against Florida State this weekend. He has a rib issue, which he suffered against Northwestern on Saturday night, that’s not expected to haunt him long term.

That reintroduces Wimbush, the redshirt junior who led the Irish to their victory over Michigan, the only victory the Irish can claim this season over a team ranked currently in the College Football Playoff Top 25. “We don’t win that game without Brandon,” Long said.

Wimbush is more of a threat to run the ball than Book, and he’s strong at throwing vertical routes to stretch a defense. But Notre Dame likely isn’t undefeated if they hadn’t shifted to Book, as even the most optimistic Notre Dame fan couldn’t have envisioned the Irish resurgence – the “Book of Momentum”, perhaps – that followed the decision.

Notre Dame’s offense averaged more than 15 points per game after Book’s insertion (38.8 from 23.3), and the total yardage leaped to 491 per game from 365. Perhaps most telling has been Book’s 75 percent completion percentage, which leads the nation.

“It’s the great analogy of the ground-ball pitcher, where everyone is on their toes in the infield” Kelly said of Notre Dame’s skill-position players. “That’s really what’s happened, it’s created a synergy and an awareness that everyone’s got a chance to be part of this.”

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush is back at the helm for Notre Dame. (AP)
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush is back at the helm for Notre Dame. (AP)

What will Wimbush’s return mean? When Yahoo Sports visited Notre Dame two weeks ago, coaches raved about the way Wimbush handled the move behind the scenes. He’s been encouraging, engaged and an ideal teammate through an adverse time. All eyes will be on whether Wimbush’s accuracy can help keep the Irish in sync in a game in which the Irish are 16.5-point favorites against a flailing Florida State program with a leaky defense that’s No. 85 nationally in scoring defense (30.4).

“I love Brandon to death,” Long said in October. “He’s the best kid you’ll ever meet, and he’ll be successful in whatever he does.”

The identity of this Notre Dame offense and season has been the sum being better than its parts, as Book’s accuracy and distribution abilities have delivered a kinetic effect for the Irish.

“When you defended them before [with Wimbush], so much of what you defended was what happened when the play broke down,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told Yahoo Sports early this week. “But at the same time, they missed a lot of plays within the design of their offense. The way they’re designing things now is the way they’re being executed.”

And that’s led to a rotating cast of stars for the Irish in past weeks – giddy to play with an efficient ground-ball pitcher. Against Northwestern, it was 6-foot-4 receiver Chase Claypool catching eight balls for 130 yards. Against Navy, it was senior tailback Dexter Williams rushing for 142 yards and three touchdowns. Against Stanford, it was redshirt junior receiver Miles Boykin hauling in 11 balls for 144 yards. Long’s work calling plays in the souped-up offense earned him a nomination for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.

“It just got to the point where we just had to involve more guys,” Long said. “We can say all we want about the skill guys doing a great job without the ball, but that’s why they came here. And to just have weapons and just having a bigger arsenal to attack on different fronts, it’s been reinvigorating for me.”

And with Notre Dame 9-0 and No. 3 in the CFP ranking, the resurgence has revived a good little bar debate as to whether this Irish team is more talented than the 2012 one that finished the regular season undefeated. That team, of course, got dismantled by Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game. That dud of an ending obscured a stacked roster, as 10 Irish defensive regulars from that team went on to be drafted, including second-rounders Stephon Tuitt and Manti Te’o and third-rounder Louis Nix.

Kelly has a background in politics. Before coaching he helped run Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in Massachusetts in the early 1980s. It’s not surprising that Kelly would take the politically correct answer and identify the current team as more talented overall. NFL scouts generally disagree, as do a few folks on campus familiar with both teams.

Kelly acknowledges that the 2012 team may have more high-end talent in spots, but the insertion of Book helped showcase this team’s overall advantage. Book is a capable runner, as he showed with a 23-yard dash to seal the game against Northwestern on Saturday night. But his accuracy, consistency and the diversity of throws in his arsenal make the Irish offense distinctly more capable than the one in 2012. Kelly compared some of the 2012 team’s offensive limitations with Everett Golson under center to what the Irish had experienced the first three games this year with Wimbush – there was success but still limitations. “We’re much more balanced,” Kelly said in his office in October. “The best way I can say it is that the offense complements the defense better than in 2012.”

That balance will be out-of-whack this weekend, a test for the Irish offensive staff to find an identity with Wimbush under center. For Notre Dame to continue this star-kissed season, the sum must continue to surpass its parts, even with the most important part missing.

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