Photo: Ian Book against Navy
A week ago Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, while studying video to face Notre Dame, judged Irish quarterback Ian Book a dynamic difference between coach Brian Kelly’s 2018 team and recent seasons.
Well, now what does he think?
With a chance to see Notre Dame (8-0) up close in the Irish’s 44-22 win over the Navy (2-6) Saturday night in San Diego, Niumatalolo expanded on what Book means to Notre Dame’s quest for a College Football Playoff berth. Notre Dame is ranked No. 4 in the first CFP rankings released Tuesday by the committee. The Irish are No. 3 in the AP and USA Today polls, but in the CFP they trail No. 1 Alabama (8-0), No. 2 Clemson (8-0) and No. 3 LSU (7-1).
Niumatalolo has three victories over Notre Dame in his 11 seasons of facing the Irish every year, so he's qualified to weigh differences between the 2012 team that went 12-0 in the regular season and the quest to finish 2018 unbeaten for a post-season bid.
"Very similar" is how he began -- but did'n't stop -- comparing 2018 to 2012 club that went earned a berth in the Bowl Championship Series national championship game. Never mind Alabama overran Notre Dame 42-14 that season – literally, in the case of Irish linebacker Manti Te’o.
The point of this story is if Niumatalolo believes this Notre Dame team is capable of a 12-0 record that likely earns one of the four CFP berths. in addition to Book, he sees intangibles that were palpable as he helplessly watched from the sidelines as the Irish handled his Midshipmen.
“I think there is a great resolve on their team,” Niumatalolo said in a conference call. “Obviously, there could have been a letdown not playing Michigan or someone like that. I thought they were focused and all business-like.”
Notre Dame was coming off a bye week after surviving a 19-14 scare against Pitt a week earlier at home.
“They played with emotion, executed and physically dominated,” he said. “You could tell they meant business. There was no overlooking us. That’s a credit to Brian and the seniors and they goals they want. They’re close to some great things, but they’re taking it one game at a time. They know they can’t overlook things.”
Notre Dame, which had lost to Navy as recently 2009, 2010 and 2016 under Niumatalolo, has four games remaining and will be favored in all four. The Irish play Nov. 3 at Northwestern (5-3), Nov. 10 at home against Florida State (4-4), Nov. 17 at Yankee Stadium against Syracuse (6-2) and Nov. 24 at USC (4-4).
At least one of the four might match Pitt’s performance, but Niumatalolo sees consistency from Book under center. Pitt led 14-6 in the third quarter, but Book threw touchdown passes of 16 and 35 yards to pull out the victory.
Against Navy, Book was 27-of-33 for 330 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran six times for 50 yards and wasn’t sacked, which fits Niumatalolo’s evaluation that he reads defenses and gets rid of the ball under a blitz.
For the year, Book, who took over as the starter for the more highly recruited Brandon Wimbush in the season’s fourth game, is 130-of-170 for 1,481 yards and 13 touchdowns with four interceptions. His 76.5 completion percentage of .765 leads the nation.
“The thing that stands out is the quarterback,” he said. “He is playing phenomenal football right now. Last year Wimbush was a good quarterback, too, but Book reminds me of McKenzie Milton.”
Milton is Central Florida’s quarterback, and no matter what you think of the Knights as a legitimate contender for a College Football Playoff berth, he’s the driving force behind a team that has won 20 straight games. A comparison to Milton is high praise among American Athletic Conference coaches.
He is the reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year. His name has been mentioned in the Heisman Trophy conversation, although realistically the same Power 5 bias that hurts UCF in the CFP costs Milton votes in the Heisman.
Milton and Book were both lightly recruited and undersized – Milton a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder out of Kapolei, Hi., and Book a 6-0, 203-pounder from El Dorado Hills, Ca.
“Book may not be 6-4, 230 like other quarterbacks, but his football IQ is high,” Niumatalolo said. “He gets rid of the ball and he’s accurate when people try to bring the blitz. He knows where to go with the football.
“Notre Dame always has been good up front and with wide receivers and running backs, but I think this Book is playing at a high level. That’s with the tough schedule they’ve played. I think he brings an element that makes it hard to do things against them.
“Similar to McKenzie, if we bring the blitz he sees it. We try to disguise it, but he doesn’t get fooled. When you’re trigger puller knows what to do with the football that makes them really tough to beat.”
Notre Dame with an elite quarterback and resolve ran up 584 yards and six touchdowns on Navy. Niumatalolo sees that as a tough combination to slow down.
* * *
Navy (2-6, 1-3) returns the AAC play when the Midshipmen play at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Cincinnati (7-1, 3-1). The Bearcats have 45 points in the AP poll equal to 30 and 116 points in USA Today equal to No. 27.
Air Force (3-5) and Army (6-2) play their leg of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy on Saturday at Michie Stadium on West Point's campus.
Air Force, which beat Navy 35-7 in October, can clinch the CIC for the second time in three seasons and third in five with a win over the Black Knights.
Army must beat Air Force to set up a chance to repeat as CiC champions at the Army-Navy Game on Dec. 8 in Philadelphia.
* * *
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.