SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Anticipation was muted more than 37 months ago, when Notre Dame made its previous trip to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
With starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush nursing a sprained foot, a redshirt freshman named Ian Book was given his first career start. A three-star recruit from El Dorado Hills, California — about seven miles from Folsom State Prison of Johnny Cash fame — Book seemingly lacked the size, arm strength and hype to make this much more than a cameo.
Even after Book dropped the Tar Heels to 1-5 with a solid but unspectacular performance, there was no ensuing quarterback controversy. Buoyed by twin 100-yard rushing days by Heisman candidate Josh Adams and Deon McIntosh, Book finished 17-for-31 passing for 146 yards — just 4.7 yards per attempt.
He threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Smith in the first quarter but also was intercepted twice in a 33-10 victory. Operating the offense of first-year coordinator Chip Long, Book also rushed 12 times for 45 yards.
With a bye week to follow, Wimbush had enough time to reclaim his health and the starting job for the USC game. Book receded into the background, having given little indication of the record-setting potential he ultimately would reveal.
Irish coach Brian Kelly quickly shut down any talk of a shared arrangement.
‘‘Brandon is our starter,’’ Kelly said after Book’s first career victory. ‘‘Ian did a great job coming in while Brandon wasn’t healthy, but, no, we’re not considering that.’’
On New Year’s Day, Book opened a few more eyes when he came off the bench in a Citrus Bowl victory against LSU, passing for 164 yards and two touchdowns. But his ascension to full-time starter would have to wait for another trip to the Tar Heel State.
That move finally came at Wake Forest in late September 2018. Book was handed the keys to a 3-0 team and guided it all the way to the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
He suffered his first loss in the Cotton Bowl against Clemson, and there would be disappointment in road losses to Georgia and Michigan in 2019. But as the No. 2 Irish head back to North Carolina for a Black Friday shopping spree against one of the most generous defenses (30.8 points allowed) in the country, they first must give thanks for Book.
‘‘He’s got the battle scars, plus the success,’’ Kelly said earlier this season. ‘‘Consistent leadership and consistent winning — that’s a pretty good résumé. We probably should have put him in sooner. He’s had a great run.’’
Notre Dame wouldn’t be unbeaten without Book’s comeback heroics against top-ranked Clemson earlier this month. The Irish wouldn’t be dreaming as readily of a national title without that 91-yard touchdown drive Book led to force overtime.
Now 28-3 as Notre Dame’s starter, Book is all over the school’s career leaderboards. Only Tony Rice, the leader of the school’s last national championship team in 1988, rushed for more career yards as an Irish quarterback.
Book has passed for only 11 touchdowns this season, but his only interception came on his 12th attempt in the opener against Duke. He has gone 204 attempts since his last interception. In his last 12-plus games and 335 passes, he has been picked off only once.
Once openly critiqued by the coaching staff for being too willing to bolt the pocket, the 6-footer has turned that perceived weakness into a positive with his deceptive quickness and rapid decision-making.
There have been some issues in the red zone, and Book will have to adjust to losing two of his top offensive linemen, including center Jarrett Patterson to a season-ending foot injury. But is there any doubt Book will lead the Irish to a rematch against Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game?
‘‘He’s a winner; he wins football games,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘Maybe it doesn’t always pass the test for those that try to evaluate Ian Book in terms of every little category, but he wins. He just brings an incredible confidence to the other players on that offense.’’
Book’s career, you might say, has gone from a dime-store novel to a best seller.