Ian Book followed the question mark with an exclamation point.
In the fourth quarter of one of the worst passing performances of his career, the Notre Dame quarterback delivered when needed in the 30-27 victory over USC.
The senior captain took control of the offense with the Irish lead cut to three points and Notre Dame sorely needing a touchdown drive. He required help, no doubt. Running backs Tony Jones Jr. and Jahmir Smith accounted for 41 rushing yards on the 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive while eating six minutes and 54 seconds off the clock.
But Book prevented a three-and-out by completing a nine-yard pass to tight end Cole Kmet on third-and-7. Later in the drive, when the Irish were pushed back into a first-and-21 following an illegal block by Tommy Kraemer, Book found Kmet again for 12 yards. Book lost a yard on second down and scrambled for 17 yards on a crucial third-and-10.
Then Book finished the drive with a perfectly timed quarterback draw for an eight-yard touchdown. Book made the right decision in cutting behind center Jarrett Patterson to his left rather than following the lead block of Jones to Patterson’s right. Patterson didn’t have control of defensive lineman Brandon Pili in front of him, but Pili chose to rip off the block to Patterson’s right as Book snuck through to the left.
Book either read the situation expertly and made the right choice in an instant or just happened to guess right. Either way, he handed the Trojans a 10-point deficit with only 3:33 remaining and made Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long look smart.
The successful finish only patched over what was a puzzling Book performance against USC. The game included one of the biggest knocks against his development as a quarterback. He didn’t push the ball down the field. This time, Book didn’t have the efficiency elsewhere to counterbalance the flaw either.
Book finished 17-of-32 passing for 165 yards and one touchdown pass. His completion percentage of 53.1 is the second-lowest of any start in his career behind only his 50-percent outing (17-of-34 for 160 yards) in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson.
Book even fared slightly better as a passer in his first career start in 2017 at North Carolina: 17-of-31 (54.8 percent) for 146 yards and one touchdown.
But unlike in his first career start, Book didn’t throw any interceptions in the win over USC. Protecting the football has been a major priority this season. In that start at North Carolina, Book threw two interceptions. He’s only thrown two interceptions through six games this season.
“I get the ball every play, and coach Long says it all the time, smart with the ball and no penalties, and that’s going to win the game,” Book said after the win. “Yeah, I take a lot of pride in that.”
With Notre Dame’s running game rolling to 308 yards, a lackluster passing game didn’t cost the Irish. But those left looking for Book to find another gear in Notre Dame’s offense were left to still wonder if it will materialize against Notre Dame’s better opponents.
The momentum of five touchdown passes against Bowling Green evaporated in the face of a talented defense. Has Book already reached his ceiling as a college quarterback? Are his limitations more physical or mental? He has the rest of the season to show clearer answers to those questions.
Here’s a closer look at Book’s performance against USC.
Notre Dame’s offensive line fared pretty well against USC’s pass rush. The Trojans managed to pressure Book on only 10 of his 37 dropbacks. The pressure rate of 27 percent qualifies as Notre Dame’s third-best this season behind its performances against Bowling Green and Georgia. The Irish only fared better than 27 percent five times last season.
But when the pressure came, Book couldn’t make much happen. He completed two of his seven passes for 30 yards, rushed for positive yardage twice for a total of 19 yards and was sacked once. His five incomplete passes came in the form of three throwaways and two pass breakups.
The Irish pass protection unit kept the number of unblocked defenders pressuring Book to just four. The remaining losses that led to pressure came twice each against left tackle Liam Eichenberg, right tackle Robert Hainsey and left guard Aaron Banks and once each against center Jarrett Patterson and running backs Tony Jones Jr. and Jahmir Smith.
USC primarily used a four-man rush on 24 of Notre Dame’s 37 dropbacks. The Trojans opted to bring more than four on 12 occasions, which limited Book’s production. He completed 5-of-11 for 44 yards against a five-man or six-man rush. Book’s lone touchdown pass, a 10-yard completion to Kmet, did come against a six-man rush.
Book completed just one pass deeper than 18 yards downfield against USC. It came on his first throw of the game.
Book connected with wide receiver Chase Claypool 26 yards down the field for a leaping catch in one-on-one coverage. While the rest of the offense appeared to be setting up a typical run-pass option with a potential handoff to Jones or a wide receiver screen to Chris Finke on the other side of the field, Book recognized the favorable coverage and took advantage of it.
Ian Book's deepest completion vs. USC came on this pass to Chase Claypool. I'm curious if this is the original play call or if Book saw the safety and checked out of the RPO that the rest of the offense appears to be running. pic.twitter.com/f48LTpVslm— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) October 16, 2019
After the game, head coach Brian Kelly said USC adjusted it’s coverage to play two safeties deep following the Claypool completion, which opened up opportunities in the running game. That likely impacted Notre Dame’s lack of a deep passing game for the remainder.
But it didn’t seem to necessarily help Book find a lot of openings in the shorter passing game either. Here’s a breakdown of Book’s passing numbers based on depth thrown relative to the line of scrimmage. It does not include his three throwaways.
Behind the line to 0 yards: 6-of-8 for 17 yards with two drops.
1-5 yards: 4-of-9 for 41 yards and one touchdown with three PBUs, one high throw and one drop.
6-10 yards: 4-of-5 for 44 yards with one drop.
11-15 yards: 1-of-3 for 19 yards with two thrown behind.
16-20 yards: 1-of-1 for 18 yards.
21-30 yards: 1-of-2 for 26 yards with one thrown wide.
31-plus yards: 0-of-1 on a PBU.
Book’s lone pass beyond 30 yards came on a 41-yard throw intended for Claypool that was broken up on a nice play by cornerback Chris Steele.
Book’s accuracy closer to the line of scrimmage wasn’t as sharp as it’s been previously, but his receivers let him down by dropping four passes.
Notre Dame reverted back to primarily using three wide receivers as its base personnel in the win over USC. In previous weeks, the Irish started to lean on two-tight end sets with success.
The Irish showed balance with three wide receivers on the field. The 56 plays were split evenly between designed runs and dropbacks. The 28 designed runs resulted in 233 yards and two touchdowns. The 28 dropbacks produced 13-of-24 passing for 117 yards and one touchdown, three positive runs for 19 yards and one sack.
The two-tight end personnel was only used on 21 plays. The 12 designed runs turned into 43 yards. The nine dropbacks resulted in 4-of-8 passing for 48 yards and one 17-yard run by Book.