In putting more trust in his receivers, Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book had to rely on them less to carry the passing game production.
Through the first six games of the season, Notre Dame’s pass catchers totaled more yards after catches than Book had accounted for with yards through the air.
The 92 passes Book completed in the first six games were caught 551 yards beyond the line of scrimmage for an average just shy of six yards per catch. On those 92 completions, the receivers added 694 yards after catches for an average of 7.5 yards per catch.
The numbers started to skew the other direction in No. 2 Notre Dame’s last two victories over Clemson and Boston College in which Book put together his best performances of the season and arguably his entire career against Power Five opponents.
Book finished 42-of-66 passing for 593 yards and four touchdowns in the two games combined. He did so by completing passes at an average depth of 9.1 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — more than three yards per catch deeper than the previous six games. The average yards after a catch were reduced to 5.4.
Book only made slight improvements in yards per completion (13.32 to 14.11) and yards per attempt (8.16 to 8.98) in the past two games, but the offense started to be more explosive in the passing game.
The last two games provided evidence that the limitations in the passing game weren’t simply Book’s inability to stretch the field. It was also impacted by Book’s willingness to take those chances down the field.
Through the first six games, Book only attempted six passes beyond 30 yards of the line of scrimmage and completed just one — the 73-yard touchdown to wide receiver Ben Skowronek at Pittsburgh, which was caught 35 yards downfield.
In the last two games, Book attempted six more passes beyond 30 yards of the line of scrimmage and completed two against Clemson — the 45-yard diving catch made by wide receiver Javon McKinley and the 53-yard reception by wide receiver Avery Davis on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
Continued trust in his arm and his receivers should allow Book to elevate Notre Dame’s passing game. The Irish (8-0, 7-0 ACC) may need it next weekend with the potential of a shootout at North Carolina (6-2).
Here’s how Book has fared in the last two games with throws at various depths relative to the line of scrimmage. The numbers exclude eight throwaways and one pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.
Behind the line to 0 yards: 4-of-4 for 13 yards.
1-5 yards: 15-of-16 for 152 yards and 1 TD with one off-target throw.
6-10 yards: 9-of-11 for 97 yards and 1 TD with one off-target throw and one drop.
11-15 yards: 9-of-13 for 168 yards and 1 TD with two 50-50 throws, one off-target throw and one pass breakup.
16-20 yards: 1-of-3 for 10 yards and 1 TD with one drop and one PBU.
21-30 yards: 2-of-4 for 55 yards with two off-target throws.
31-plus yards: 2-of-6 for 98 yards with two PBUs, one off-target throw and one 50-50 throw.
Notre Dame’s 12 personnel — offensive formations utilizing one running back and two tight ends — became more productive in the last two games while being used less frequently.
The wealth of talent at tight end influenced offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to rely on 12 personnel even more than 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) in the first six games — 171 plays in 12 personnel and 155 plays in 11 personnel. But 11 personnel was more productive for the Irish with an average of 7.4 yards per play compared to 5.9 yards per play with 12 personnel.
The Irish offense leaned much more on 11 personnel in the last two games against Clemson and Boston College. The 84 plays in 11 personnel produced 657 yards (7.8 yards per play) and five touchdowns. The 44 plays in 12 personnel averaged nearly the same production with 7.7 yards per play.
The emergence of Davis as a slot receiver the past two weeks has made the 11 personnel grouping much more viable for Notre Dame’s spread offense. But the continued growth of tight ends Tommy Tremble and Michael Mayer has made the 12 personnel grouping an enticing option too. When both personnel groupings are executing at a high level, the Irish offense can create tough matchups for defenses.
One thing that has remained consistent regardless of the personnel on the field has been Notre Dame’s running game. In the first six games, the Irish called 201 designed runs for 1,119 yards and 15 touchdowns for an average of 5.6 yards per carry. The 73 designed runs in the last two games also averaged 5.6 yards per carry with 408 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
The reported loss of starting center Jarrett Patterson for the remainder of the season with a foot injury is certainly a significant one for the Irish offense. Patterson made 21 consecutive starts at the position and had been playing his best as of late.
But there’s reason to believe that Notre Dame’s offensive line can still remain a strength with whomever fills in at center. Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn showed last season that he could have backups prepared to play when Trevor Ruhland and Josh Lugg had to replace right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey, respectively, to finish the season.
Though the Irish were playing inferior opponents to end the regular season, the offensive production didn’t take a dive with Ruhland and Lugg on the field.
Whether Zeke Correll, Colin Grunhard or Lugg could have similar success as the new center remains to be seen. If any of them are going to match Patterson’s performance, they will have to be strong and agile in the running game and attentive in pass protection.
Notre Dame’s running game this season has actually taken some pressure off the center position. The outside zone, specifically, doesn’t require the center to drive a defender well past the line of scrimmage. Whether the center is taking over a defensive lineman or reaching a linebacker, the ability to maneuver into good positioning is the most important.
The Irish haven’t relied on the running game finding chunks of yardage through the interior of the offensive line. In the last two games alone on designed runs, excluding quarterback sneaks and draws, the Irish rushed to the outside 43 times for 314 yards (7.3 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. Interior runs inside the tackles accounted for 27 runs for 79 yards (2.9 yards per carry) and one touchdown against Clemson and Boston College.
Patterson excelled in pass protection. The center can’t give up a lot of ground directly in front of the quarterback, so it’s an important part of the protection unit. Through the first eight games, Patterson allowed only seven pressures on 266 dropbacks. Only left guard Aaron Banks allowed fewer with five.
The Irish have their hands full in replacing Patterson, but with a veteran offensive line surrounding the center it shouldn’t be an insurmountable task.