Ian Book had to do it all.
With Notre Dame’s running backs combining to rush for only 58 yards in Saturday’s victory over Virginia Tech, the Irish were left to ride the ups and downs of the passing game.
Book delivered with inconsistency in his 53 pass attempts. He completed 29 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions and threw the ball away a season-high 11 times.
For all his flaws, Notre Dame’s senior quarterback came through in the clutch. He accounted for 84 of the 87 yards on the game-winning drive, which was capped by his seven-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds remaining in the 21-20 victory. Book converted two fourth-down conversions in the process with completions to running back Jafar Armstrong and wide receiver Chase Claypool. He also finished with a team-high 50 rushing yards.
Until Book receives more help on offense from the running game, more consistency from an offensive line starting backups at right guard (Trevor Ruhland) and right tackle (Josh Lugg) and more playmaking from teammates not named Claypool or tight end Cole Kmet, Notre Dame’s offense may continue to be a bit of a roller coaster.
In the first seven games of the season, Book recorded only 14 throwaways. Clearly the Virginia Tech defense created tough situations for Book that he couldn’t solve beyond living to play for another down.
That may be best illustrated by three different plays with similar setups that all ended in throwaways. In what appears to be three variations of a run-pass option (RPO) concept, the Irish used Kmet as a detached tight end on the left side and had him slice behind the line of scrimmage to the right while Book ran through a read option with a running back.
On all three occasions, the Irish left Virginia Tech defensive end Tyjuan Garbutt unblocked. If the play calls were all indeed RPOs, Book should have been tasked with deciding whether or not to hand the ball off by how Garbutt reacted. There may have been other factors impacting Book’s decisions, but Garbutt should have been one of the keys.
Book decided to keep the ball and attempt a pass on all three occasions. And on all three occasions, Garbutt pressured Book and prevented him from throwing the ball on time. Virginia Tech’s defensive backs didn’t help matters with tight coverage on Book’s receiving options.
Only offensive coordinator Chip Long knows how he would have liked those plays to work out, but Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster seemingly had his defense prepared for Notre Dame’s RPO game.
Excluding Book’s 11 throwaways, he finished 29-of-42 passing for 336 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions on throws made to intended targets. Of the remaining 13 incomplete passes, eight of them came from overthrows.
Here’s how Book’s passes to intended targets were distributed by depth in relationship to the line of scrimmage.
Behind the line to 0 yards: 6-of-6 for 61 yards.
1-5 yards: 10-of-12 for 63 yards and one TD with one overthrow and one drop.
6-10 yards: 4-of-7 for 45 yards and one interception with two catchable passes.
11-15 yards: 4-of-4 for 48 yards and one TD.
16-20 yards: 2-of-5 for 37 yards with three overthrows.
21-30 yards: 3-of-5 for 82 yards with two overthrows.
31-plus yards: 0-of-3 with one interception and two overthrows.
When right tackle Robert Hainsey left the Virginia Tech game in the first quarter with a fractured ankle, it left the Irish with two replacement offensive linemen making up the right side of the offensive line. Junior Josh Lugg replaced Hainsey. Graduate student Trevor Ruhland started at right guard against Virginia Tech after previous starter Tommy Kraemer went down with a knee injury in the Michigan game.
The combination of Lugg and Ruhland had their struggles in pass protection, but not at an unreasonable level. Lugg allowed Book to be pressured four times, which was the most allowed by any Irish offensive lineman. Ruhland allowed Book to be pressured three times.
Book’s tendency to move right when scrambling makes their task even tougher. Book himself allowed the defense to pressure him on five occasions because of the way he moved in and out of the pocket.
Book was pressured on 16 of his 58 dropbacks against Virginia Tech. The pressure rate of 27.6 ranks fourth-best this season for the Irish. Book was pressured by multiple defenders on two of his dropbacks, resulting the defense receiving credit for 18 individual pressures on the 16 pressured dropbacks.
Beyond the pressure losses assigned to Book (5), Lugg (4) and Ruhland (3), the other six pressures came from five unblocked defenders and one defender beating center Jarrett Patterson.
Garbutt, the defensive end that disrupted Notre Dame’s RPOs, accounted for half of Virginia Tech’s pressures with eight. That includes three against Lugg, two created by Book and four unblocked opportunities.
Book found little success when Virginia Tech pressured him. He finished 3-of-14 passing for 33 yards and one interception with eight throwaways and two overthrows when pressured. Book also ran twice for seven yards against pressure.
Foster decided to be conservative with his pass rush on Notre Dame’s game-winning drive. He opted to rush just three defenders on 13 of the 15 dropbacks on the drive.
That may have been because Book had so much success against a four-man rush throughout the game. Book finished 15-of-22 for 184 yards with one touchdown and one interception against a four-man rush.
Even though Book completed the comeback with Virginia Tech predominantly using a three-man rush on the final drive — including on the final fourth-down conversion that resulted in a 26-yard pass to Claypool when the Irish needed 10 yards — he still completed less than half of his passes when Virginia Tech dropped eight defenders in coverage.
Book finished 8-of-17 for 88 yards and rushed three times for 11 yards against Virginia Tech’s three-man rush. Book had only faced a three-man rush 17 times in Notre Dame's first seven games. He completed 7-of-14 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown with three rushes for 15 yards against a three-man rush in those games.
Against a five-man rush, Book completed just two passes on seven attempts for nine yards with one interception. He also ran once for 13 yards.
Virginia Tech rushed six defenders as a product of Notre Dame’s playfakes on seven dropbacks. Book finished 4-of-7 for 55 yards and one touchdown on those snaps.
Book saw considerable success as a passer when Notre Dame used playfakes in the backfield. He completed 10 of his 18 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Six of his eight incomplete passes following playfakes were throwaways.
Twelve of the playfakes came when Notre Dame was using a three wide receiver set. The Irish opted to used three wide receivers on 60 of the 89 offensive plays, which excludes the two kneel downs.
Nearly three-quarters of the play calls in a three receiver set were designed passes. Book dropped back to pass 44 times, which resulted in 22-of-42 passing for 264 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also ran twice for 12 yards.
Notre Dame use a two tight end package on 22 snaps, which included 12 dropbacks and 10 designed runs.The Irish also sprinkled in three plays with two running backs, two wide receivers and one tight end, three plays with two running backs and three wide receivers, and one play with three tight ends.