Notre Dame operated with a new play caller in quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees, yet the 33-9 Irish victory over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl served as fitting finale for Notre Dame’s offense.
The Irish offense didn’t change its identity. It still relied on quarterback Ian Book to make smart decisions and keep plays alive with his legs. It still needed wide receiver Chase Claypool to dominate defensive backs. It still featured a running game that didn’t overpower opponents, but could inflate its numbers with long runs.
All the lessons learned about Notre Dame’s offense in 2019 seemed to be proven true on Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla. But in Rees’ first game calling plays, he showed subtle differences from former offensive coordinator Chip Long.
The most notable difference may have been how Rees utilized Notre Dame’s different personnel groupings. Because Long valued tempo so much, he often chose to keep the same personnel on the field for the majority of the drive and only change it when the down and distance required different options.
Rees didn’t seem as concerned with the offensive pace. He mixed and matched personnel multiple times throughout drives beyond situations like third-and-long or third-and-short. In the second drive of the game, the offense ran through three different personnel groupings that included three wide receivers, two running backs or two tight ends.
Notre Dame’s offense also didn’t rely on the run-pass option (RPO) much against Iowa State. Most of quarterback Ian Book’s passes that started with playfakes appeared to be playaction rather than a run/pass read. There’s a chance that some of Notre Dame’s running plays were actually RPOs, but if run well it’s hard to distinguish between a called run/pass and an RPO.
Regardless of the play design or intent, Notre Dame’s playfakes worked against Iowa State. On eight pass attempts following a playfake, Book completed six passes for 116 yards including completions of 43 and 32 yards to Claypool and 23 yards to tight end Cole Kmet.
Notre Dame’s starting offense finished the game with 61 plays for 429 yards and three touchdowns for an average of almost exactly seven yards per play. The offense was most productive with two tight ends on the field. On 26 plays, split evenly between 13 dropbacks and 13 designed runs, the Irish gained 216 yards (8.3 yards per play) and scored one touchdown. That touchdown came on the 84-yard run by running back Tony Jones Jr. early in the third quarter.
The offense averaged 6.6 yards per play when the personnel included either three wide receivers or two running backs. From the base three wide receiver look, Notre Dame produced 165 yards and one touchdown on 25 plays (15 dropbacks and 10 designed runs). With two running backs on the field, the Irish produced 46 yards on seven plays (five designed runs and two dropbacks).
Notre Dame’s starting offense used three tight ends for two plays and four tight ends for one play. The Irish scored on a one-yard touchdown run by running back Jafar Armstrong on its lone play with four tight ends.
Book showed that he can stretch the field in 2019. With his return for a fifth year in 2020, Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator should press upon Book to do it more often.
Book improved his accuracy on longer throws in 2019. In his first year as the starter for nine games in 2018, Book finished 17-of-45 passing (37.8 percent) for 536 yards and five touchdowns with one interception on throws beyond 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. In 13 starts in 2019, Book upped his production to 32-of-58 (55 percent) for 973 yards and 10 touchdowns with two interceptions at that depth.
But Book will need to find a new go-to target on deeper throws. In the Camping World Bowl, Book threw four passes beyond 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. All four were thrown to Claypool, who exhausted his eligibility in 2019.
Here’s how Book’s throws were distributed in the win over Iowa State. He finished 20-of-28 for 247 yards and one touchdown. One of Book’s passes was a throwaway, which isn’t included in this breakdown sorted by depth in relation to the line of scrimmage.
Behind the line to 0: 6-of-7 for 28 yards with one drop.
1-5 yards: 6-of-7 for 61 yards with one PBU.
6-10 yards: 5-of-8 for 59 yards with one overthrow, one underthrow and one catchable pass.
11-15 yards: 0-of-1 on a PBU that should have been intercepted.
16-20 yards: None.
21-30 yards: 1-of-2 for 24 yards and 1 TD with one overthrow.
31-plus yards: 2-of-2 for 75 yards.
For all the inconsistency Notre Dame’s offensive line had in run blocking, the Irish finished the season with another excellent effort in pass protection. Against Iowa State, Book was pressured on just six of his 29 dropbacks. The pressure rate of 20.7 percent marked the third-lowest of the season for the Irish.
Certainly Iowa State’s insistence on rushing only three defenders made the job a bit easier for Notre Dame’s offensive line. The Cyclones used a three-man rush on 14 of Book’s 29 dropbacks. Book torched Iowa State for 169 yards and one touchdown on 10-of-14 passing and was pressured just twice by the three-man rush.
Book finished the game without being sacked for the fifth time of the 2019 season. Book was only sacked 13 times in 13 games, but most of them came in the first four games. After being sacked eight times by Louisville, New Mexico and Virginia in the first four games, Book was sacked only five times in the last nine games.
For the entire season, Book was pressured on 133 of his 463 dropbacks. The pressure rate of 28.7 percent marked a three-percent improvement from 2018, when Book and Wimbush were pressured at a 31.7-percent clip with the starting offense.
The 133 pressured dropbacks in 2019 included 168 individual pressures. The majority of those pressures (54) came from unblocked defenders. The next highest cause of pressure came from Book himself. Book maneuvered himself into 18 pressures. Book played a big role in avoiding the pass rush and being sacked only 13 times — though he did run out of bounds for a sack more than once. But his legs do get him in trouble at times.
Failed pass blocks by the following players also lead to Book being pressured: left guard Aaron Banks (17), left tackle Liam Eichenberg (15), center Jarrett Patterson (14), right tackle Robert Hainsey (13), right tackle Josh Lugg (9), right guard Trevor Ruhland (9), running back Tony Jones Jr. (7), right guard Tommy Kraemer (5), tight end Brock Wright (2), running back Jahmir Smith (2), running back Avery Davis (1), running back C’Bo Flemister (1) and tight end Cole Kmet (1).
It should be noted that counting pressures and assigning blame for those pressures requires quite a bit of subjectivity, but the numbers offer a depiction of how the pass protection fared.