SOUTH BEND — Three weeks ago, people were asking for Brian Kelly to be fired and Ian Book to be benched.
Three wins and two dominating performances later, those people have been silenced.
Notre Dame played its most complete game of the season Saturday, a 52-20 beatdown of No. 23 Navy that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. The No. 16 Fighting Irish scored the first 38 points and led 45-3 before it took the starters out.
The question wasn’t so much of what went right for Notre Dame as what didn’t go wrong. The Irish scored on their first seven possessions, accumulating most of the damage through the air.
Particularly, the Ian Book-to-Chase Claypool connection was unguardable. The duo connected for the first three touchdowns from 7, 47 and 3 yards, respectively, giving Notre Dame a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The 47-yard score seemed destined to work from the beginning, as Navy had a linebacker on the 6-foot-4, 229-pound receiver from Canada.
“We knew it was a mismatch or miscommunication of some sort because we hadn’t seen it on film ever,” Claypool said. “It hasn’t even happened this year, I think. I think Ian knew it right away — I knew it right away — and I was running down the field with a big smile on my face before the ball even got to me.”
Claypool and Book have found a rhythm in November. Claypool has 20 receptions for 332 yards and five touchdowns this month. Nearly 51 percent of Claypool’s receiving yards have come in the three games in November. His 117-yard, four-touchdown performance against Navy was just another dominant one for the senior wide receiver.
“The chemistry with Ian Book has definitely helped a lot,” Claypool said. “We’re roommates in the hotel, so we’re able to go through things if anything comes up. I just think being comfortable with Ian helps. I think trust is a big thing … he knows exactly where to put the ball.”
Book wasn’t afraid to share the wealth, though, as he threw a 70-yard touchdown to Braden Lenzy to make it a 28-0 game with 10:27 still left in the second quarter. Book’s five-touchdown performance was his third of the season, the most a quarterback has had in a season in Notre Dame history.
Book finished 14-of-20 for 284 yards and the five touchdowns. After struggling at times through the first two months, Book has become the quarterback everyone saw in 2018 and expected him to be in 2019.
“I feel great,” Book said. “I’m confident with all the guys on this team. The defense is doing an awesome job of getting us the ball. They play so well and give us so many opportunities, and then our offense … we’re starting to roll, and it’s awesome. We got 10 other guys on the field that are playing for each other, and that’s when you find success.
“I’m definitely really confident, and this whole offense should be.”
It wasn’t just the offense making a statement Saturday, though. The Irish defense stepped up to the task of defending the triple-option offense the Midshipmen run, forcing four turnovers.
Two of those turnovers came on forced fumbles in the first two possessions from defensive end Khalid Kareem. The senior admitted after the game he didn’t realize he caused the first one but knew the second one was because of him.
“That’s huge. Once they get moving, they’re hard to stop,” Kareem said. “Offense got the ball back and scored. Our main thing was just for our offense to score as many times as they can, and that happened.”
Navy had four fumbles total in the game, none of them more memorable than the one that happened early in the fourth quarter. With the game already determined, redshirt freshman linebacker Paul Moala stripped the ball out of the hands of Navy quarterback Perry Olsen, running 27 yards toward the end zone to make it 52-10.
Moala, who went to high school eight miles away at Penn, scored a lot of touchdowns for the Kingsmen as a running back. This was his first wearing the blue-and-gold, though.
“It was an exhilarating experience; a dream come true, really,” Moala said. “Just a testament to how well our defense plays all together. To have that opportunity to be able to score is just a surreal moment. Truly a blessing.”
“He was awesome today,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s a really good football player. We got to find a place to get him on the field because (linebacker Jeremiah) Owusu-Koramoah is a really good player, too. Paul’s smart, he’s savvy, he’s athletic … he’s a really good player. He’s trusted. He’s going to play a lot of football for us.
“And, it’s great he’s a local player, too.”
Everything that could go right, did go right for Notre Dame on Saturday. Three weeks after being dismantled by Michigan, Kelly and Book seem to be comfortable in their positions.
“We’re playing for each other. That’s all that matters,” Book said. “We love each other, and we’re all on the same page. We’re a really good football team that can get rolling, and that’s what it’s all about. Blocking out the noise, letting people say what they want. It doesn’t really matter. It’s about us. It’s hard to win in November. We’re doing that. We have to keep it going, and there’s no better feeling than that.”