Ian Book captioned his social media posts announcing his return to Notre Dame with “#BeatNavy.”
The Irish will open the 2020 season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland on Aug. 29, and Book plans to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback once again.
But if Book wants to change his legacy at Notre Dame, he needs to #BeatWisconsin and #BeatClemson. Immediately following his announcement, impatient members of the Notre Dame fan base took turns expressing their displeasure.
Book’s 20-3 record as a starter isn’t quite enough for the naysayers. Those three losses coming at the hands of Clemson, Georgia and Michigan have shown that Book doesn’t have what it takes to beat college football’s elite defenses, so the argument goes.
The critics have evidence to support their claim. Book’s passing efficiency numbers in those games don’t come close to his efficiency numbers against lesser opponents. In last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson, Book completed 17 of his 34 passes for 160 yards and one interception. Book finished the 2018 season with a 153.9 passing efficiency rating, but he managed a rating of only 83.6 against the eventual national champions.
In 2019, Book played against three defenses currently ranked among the top 30 in the FBS for passing efficiency defense: Georgia (No. 14), Michigan (30) and Virginia Tech (28). He logged passing efficiency ratings of 116.38, 69.73 and 112.88 in those three games, respectively. Book only managed to beat Virginia Tech of that trio with the help of his game-winning touchdown run of seven yards with 29 seconds remaining.
Following Saturday’s 33-9 Camping World Bowl victory over Iowa State, Book finished the 2019 season with a passing efficiency rating of 149.1, currently ranked No. 28 in the FBS.
That meant Book continued the trend of quarterback play at Notre Dame under head coach Brian Kelly. Book became just the second quarterback to start the majority of games in back-to-back seasons for the Irish under Kelly. Like DeShone Kizer in 2015 and 2016, Book’s passing efficiency rating took a slight dip in his second season.
Kizer’s efficiency rating dropped from 150 as a sophomore to 145.6 as a junior. Kizer then left Notre Dame early to enter the 2017 NFL Draft, in which he was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the second round.
Book’s NFL prospects heading into 2020 were much lower, so he wisely chose to return to the Irish. Though his efficiency rating dropped from the Kelly Era high of 153.9 in 2018 to 149.1 in 2019, Book can become the third quarterback of Kelly’s at Notre Dame to eventually boost his passing efficiency.
Current Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees improved his efficiency rating from 133.4 in 2011 to 135.4 in 2013 despite losing the starting job to Everett Golson in 2012. Golson’s efficiency rating jumped from 131 in 2012 to 143.6 in 2014 after missing the 2013 season with an academic suspension.
Despite Book’s dip in passing efficiency from 2018 to 2019, there’s reason to believe he’s improved as a passer. Book’s biggest knock following the 2018 season was his ability to stretch the field. Book and Rees were well aware of the perception, even if they refused to believe it.
“My perspective of it is it’s not an issue,” Rees told the Tribune last June. “Yeah, we’ve missed deep balls. Does that mean Ian Book can’t throw the deep ball? No. I’ve seen him throw better deep balls than anyone on the team. I’ve seen him make throws over 30 yards that a lot of guys can’t make.
“Now, we didn’t execute them in the game, and there are some technical things and some footwork things that we have to get corrected, but this whole narrative of Ian Book can’t push the ball down the field is false. I’ve seen him make the throws 100 times.”
Book didn’t necessarily rely on deep passes more often in 2019. According to Tribune film analysis, Book attempted the same number of passes beyond 30 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2019 as he did in 2018. But he became more accurate.
In 2018, Book finished 5-of-21 (23.8 percent) for 209 yards and two touchdowns on throws more than 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This past season, Book completed nine of his 21 throws (42.8 percent) at that depth for 376 yards and five touchdowns with one interception.
Book also improved on throws between 21 and 30 yards past the line of scrimmage, which allowed Book to nearly double his production on throws beyond 20 yards between the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
In his first year as the starter, Book finished 17-of-45 (37.8 percent) for 536 yards and five touchdowns with one interception on throws beyond 20 yards. In 2019, Book went 32-of-58 (55 percent) for 973 yards and 10 touchdowns with two interceptions at that depth.
Now Kelly, Rees and whoever becomes Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator need to identify Book’s biggest deficiencies and find a way to improve them. That will give the Irish the best chance to beat the likes of Wisconsin on Oct. 3 and Clemson on Nov. 7.
On ABC’s TV broadcast of Saturday’s Camping World Bowl, analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback, complimented Book on his ability to use his athleticism in reaction to what defenses throw at him.
“He is best when he’s playing frantically physically but calm mentally,” Orlovsky said on the broadcast. “A challenge for a quarterback, but he’s good enough.”
But is Book good enough to maximize his abilities against top defenses? He will have more chances to prove it in 2020. Clemson and Wisconsin entered this week with two of the top 12 passing efficiency defenses for 2019.
The CFP No. 3 Tigers did enough to beat No. 2 Ohio State in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields entered the matchup ranked as the No. 4 quarterback in the country in passing efficiency at 190.3. But Fields threw two interceptions against the Tigers — after throwing just one all season beforehand — and finished with a 122.13 rating in the 29-23 loss.
Clemson currently has the top passing efficiency defense in the country with a 96.32 rating. Wisconsin, ranked No. 12 in passing efficiency defense (113.23), lost twice to Ohio State. But in both games the Badgers managed to keep Fields under his season-long efficiency rating.
Though the defenses of Wisconsin and Clemson will look slightly different, those are the challenges that await Book in 2020. He’s already among the top six quarterbacks in Notre Dame history in career touchdown passes (4th with 57), career completions (5th, 500) career rushing yards (5th, 1,033) and career passing yards (6th, 6,118).
Book also has a chance to become the winningest quarterback in program history. He needs 10 wins to break the record of 29 shared by Tom Clements, Ron Powlus and Brady Quinn.
That means Book can set the record without beating Wisconsin or Clemson. But he can only remove the invisible asterisk that would come with the record by winning those big games.
After Book scored the game-winning touchdown against Virginia Tech in Notre Dame Stadium, Book raised a finger to his facemask as if to silence the doubters that questioned him all week long following the dreadful 45-14 loss at Michigan.
That all but proved that Book was well aware of the noise outside of Notre Dame’s locker room. That’s the pressure that comes with being the quarterback at Notre Dame. Even the good ones can’t escape it.
Book responded by leading the Irish to a six-game winning streak to end the season. But not all wins are measured the same at Notre Dame, and the pressure never subsides.
By choosing to return for his fifth year, Book isn’t running away from it.
Add one more hashtag to the list: #BeatPressure.