The pressure clearly impacted Ian Book.
The Virginia pass rush overwhelmed Notre Dame’s pass protection groups and subsequently Notre Dame’s quarterback at times in the 35-20 win over the Cavaliers, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
On just 33 dropbacks, Book was pressured on 12 of them. The pressure rate of 36.4 percent created by Virginia is the second-highest of the season against Notre Dame and higher than all but four games last season.
But how Book reacted may be the most troubling part of the passing game performance against Virginia. He completed just one of his five passes for 13 yards against pressure. Two of those passes were broken up, one was thrown behind Book’s target, and another was dropped. Book was sacked four times for a loss of 33 yards. He was able to scramble to avoid pressure three times for carries totaling 11 yards.
Book never managed to even successfully throw the ball away against Virginia’s pressure. He attempted to do so twice with both resulting in intentional grounding penalties and, therefore, sacks.
Book entered the Virginia game with more of a mixed bag against pressure this season. Through the first three games, Book went 12-of-28 passing for 166 yards and two touchdowns against pressure. He managed to throw the ball away eight times, but he was sacked four times and threw one interception in the face of pressure in those three games.
Virginia’s pass rush lived up to the hype. The Cavaliers entered the Notre Dame game tied for the FBS lead, averaging five sacks per game. With the average dipping slightly to 4.8 sacks per game following the performance against the Irish, Virginia still is tied for second nationally.
The different combinations of blitzes and stunts used by Virginia’s front seven can confuse offenses. The 3-4 front included four or five pass rushers on 29 of Notre Dame’s 33 dropbacks. A five-man rush was used most frequently (17 times) and resulted in seven pressured dropbacks.
The 12 pressured dropbacks created by Virginia included 16 different defenders causing pressure. Seven of those defenders came unblocked. The remaining pressures were the results of losses by left tackle Liam Eichenberg (3) and one each by right guard Tommy Kraemer, left guard Aaron Banks, right tackle Robert Hainsey, center Jarrett Patterson, running back Tony Jones Jr. and Book himself.
Book ended Notre Dame’s first drive of the first half by scrambling for no gain on third-and-6 with the Irish backed up on their own six-yard line. He tried to escape up the middle and ran himself into pressure rather than throwing to an open Chase Claypool crossing the middle of the field not far from the line of scrimmage.
No middle ground
The book on Book has been that he relies on short passes and doesn’t take enough chances down the field. Skeptics received more evidence with his play against Virginia.
Book, who finished 17-of-25 passing overall for 165 yards, only attempted five passes beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Book did find some success on the deeper end. He completed two of his three attempts beyond 20 yards for a total of 65 yards passing.
Intermediate throws between 11 and 20 yards continued to be a bit of a dead zone for Book. He threw just two passes of that length against Virginia and both fell incomplete. Here’s a breakdown of Book’s throwing depths from Saturday.
Behind the line to 0: 5-of-8 for 30 yards with one PBU, one throw behind and one drop.
1-5 yards: 5-of-6 for 23 yards with one PBU.
6-10 yards: 5-of-6 for 47 yards with one catchable pass falling incomplete.
11-15 yards: 0-of-1 on a catchable pass.
16-20 yards: 0-of-1 on an overthrow.
21-30 yards: 1-of-2 for 28 yards with one PBU.
31-plus yards: 1-of-1 for 37 yards.
The 37-yard completion to tight end Cole Kmet was only the second completion thrown more than 30 yards downfield for Book this season. He also threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Claypool in the home opener against New Mexico. Book’s other four attempts beyond 30 yards have fallen incomplete.
Book’s second-lowest completion percentage this season has come in the ranges of 6-10 yards and 11-15 yards. He’s a combined 15-of-30 (50 percent) for 196 and two interceptions on throws between 6 and 15 yards downfield.
Book has been successful in the range of 21-30 yards this season. He’s 7-of-10 for 180 yards and one touchdown. Book needs to make more of these kinds of throws. Consistently stretching the field just a little bit more could help open up the intermediate throws too.
Playing with personnel
Notre Dame ended up with an even split of 31 offensive plays with two tight ends on the field and 31 plays with three wide receivers on the field.
Notre Dame’s base offense tends to be with three wide receivers and one tight end, but offensive coordinator Chip Long may have discovered a greater appreciation and trust in utilizing two tight ends against Virginia.
The emergence of sophomore Tommy Tremble and a healthy return of junior Cole Kmet gives Notre Dame a pair of tight ends capable of stretching the field a bit and blocking in the running game.
With two tight ends on the field, the Irish called 20 designed running plays that resulted in 152 yards and three touchdowns. The 11 dropbacks with two tight ends produced 6-of-7 passing for 47 yards with three sacks and one positive run of three yards.
With three wide receivers on the field, the Irish called 22 passing plays. They resulted in 11-of-18 passing for 118 yards and four runs, including one sack, for a net of negative-seven yards. Nine designed runs produced 26 rushing yards and one touchdown.
If using two tight ends is the answer to finding a more productive rushing attack, the Irish should continue to rely on it. But it’s important for Notre Dame to show it can still pass the ball successfully with two tight ends on the field.
If the Irish are successful running the ball with two tight ends, it should open up some play-action opportunities from that personnel group. Notre Dame actually used play fakes more in three-wide receiver sets (seven times) than it did with two tight ends (four times) against Virginia.
The play-fake success with two tight ends against Virginia was limited. The Irish completed both pass attempts for 15 yards. Book was sacked once for a loss of six yards and also scrambled for a three-yard gain.
More looks with two tight ends won’t necessarily be the solution for all of Notre Dame’s offensive inconsistencies, but it can allow the offense to create an identity to rely on throughout the season.