What film sessions revealed about quarterback Ian Book last season left members of Notre Dame’s football team astonished at times.
That includes veterans like former Irish center Sam Mustipher, a three-year starter and 2018 team captain. He would watch plays where Book diagnosed defenses pre-snap better than he did. What may have seemed ordinary from the newly minted starter at the time became impressive with hindsight and context.
“There were a lot of times where he got us in great situations,” said Mustipher, now a member of the Chicago Bears practice squad. “He was seeing things that I couldn’t see at the center position. He has the ability to see the whole field, and he had a great grasp of the offense.”
Since Mustipher expired his eligibility after last season, Book’s responsibilities have only increased. The two used to collectively communicate with the offensive line. Because Book now has the experience and is behind a first-year center in Jarrett Patterson, the senior is tasked with more pre-snap duties.
Mustipher and Book contended that not many defenses present more challenges before the snap than that of Michigan. Led by coordinator Don Brown, the Wolverine defense dares offenses to be aggressive.
That will be the case for Book when the No. 19 Wolverines (5-2) host the No. 8 Irish (5-1) on Saturday (7:30 EDT on ABC).
Michigan looks to create confusion through exotic linebacker blitzes and defensive line stunts. The Wolverine defensive backs mostly operate in man-to-man coverage, challenging wide receivers to create separation and opposing quarterbacks to deliver difficult throws on time.
“They are going to run a whole lot of blitzes and whole lot of pressure,” Mustipher said. “Give you multiple looks up front to try to mess up the protection, which way it’s going.”
Moving the ball through chunk plays has proven to be the formula to exploiting Michigan’s defense this year. Michigan allowed just 283 yards in its 28-21 loss at Penn State last Saturday, but 194 of those yards and three touchdowns came on six plays. Wisconsin amassed 14 plays of at least 10 yards and eight of at least 18 yards in its 35-14 victory over Michigan.
The Irish may need Book to take chances to register those long gains. They may also need him to time his wide receiver’s routes well and fit the ball into small windows in tight coverage. The Wolverines rank No. 14 in total defense, No. 30 in run defense and No. 34 in pass efficiency defense.
“He’s run exactly what he’s been running for a while now,” said Book of Brown. “He’s a great defensive coordinator who we respect a lot. It’s up to us to go out there and (be aggressive). If they back off, we have our adjustments as well. It’s up to what he wants to do.”
Book has struggled with the deep ball and remaining poised in the pocket — with or without pressure — at times this season. According to the film analysis of South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James, Book finished a combined 3-of-12 for 43 yards and took five sacks when under pressure against Virginia and USC. He’s completed just three passes that traveled beyond 30 yards this season.
Deeper intermediate throws have been a strength for Book, though. He’s a combined 17-of-24 passing for 406 yards and four touchdowns on throws that traveled between 16 and 30 yards from the line of scrimmage.
One of those throws dissuaded USC from its opportunistic approach a couple weeks ago. After Book completed a 26-yard pass to receiver Chase Claypool on Notre Dame’s first possession, USC modified its defense.
The Trojans dropped their safeties to reduce the risk of more big plays. That paved the way for running back Tony Jones Jr. to record a career-high 176 rushing yards on 25 carries.
Challenging the Wolverines to make a similar adjustment will be Book’s objective.
“It’s kind of similar to what I said against USC,” Book said. “It’s about making the big plays and winning the one-on-one matchups.”
Mustipher knows about Michigan's defense after facing them in 2018. He's also watched every Irish game this season, including the Oct. 5 win over Bowling in person. What will Book need to recognize pre-snap to change into the correct pass protections or audibles?
“We come up, and is it an even front or an odd front? Or they’re in base defense or they’re in nickel defense or some type of sub-package,” Mustipher said. “What’s the percentage of blitz out of this front? Why would they do that?
“Why is the linebacker aligned at that position? Why is the nickelback aligned there? Why are the safeties open in the middle of the field? Does that mean they are going to run some type of twist up front?”
The short answer: a lot.
The Irish offensive line has seemed to respond well to Book’s increased pre-snap involvement this season and made the midseason honor roll for the Joe Moore Award. Pro Football Focus ranked the Irish No. 1 nationally in pass-blocking efficiency through the first seven weeks of this season. Jones has registered three straight games with at least 100 rushing yards.
Continuing to correctly interpret the confusing looks and then making the proper adjustments accordingly before the snap comes first. Then the shots down the field come next.
“They basically have a defense where they trust in their defensive backs to play man-to-man and be physical,” Book said. “You hit them with the big shots. You hope they back off after that. It’s about making the big plays one-on-one.
“There’s going to be guys guarded. It’s up to me to put the ball in the right position and have our guys go up and make the play.”