Clemson learned from its November loss to Notre Dame.
Stopping quarterback Ian Book isn’t as simple as sending blitzers at him. Keeping him contained requires patience.
Certainly having linebacker James Skalski and defensive tackle Tyler Davis back in the heart of Clemson’s defense made a significant impact. But the difference between Clemson’s two sacks on 47 dropbacks in November and Clemson’s six sacks on 36 dropbacks in its ACC Championship victory was a product of both personnel and scheme.
Clemson sent more than five pass rushers at Book in the first matchup on 10 dropbacks, which resulted in just one sack. The Tigers never rushed more than five defenders against Book last Saturday and still managed six sacks.
Clemson took turns winning individual one-on-one matchups to pressure Book and letting his antsy tendency take over. Even in Notre Dame’s 47-40 win, Book put himself under pressure on four occasions with untimely movement around the pocket. He did it again last Saturday three times in Clemson’s 34-10 win, which resulted in a pair of sacks.
Book’s at his worst when playing indecisive. That version of Book hadn’t been present much for the latter half of the season, but it returned last Saturday. Against a Clemson defense that wasn’t going to allow wide receivers to run wide open often, the windows to make easy throws closed quickly.
So even though Book’s final passing line of 20-of-28 for 219 yards doesn’t look bad on paper, it doesn’t quite reflect how toothless Notre Dame’s passing game was against Clemson.
That doesn’t all fall on Book. A lackluster running attack made Notre Dame’s offense more predictable. The offensive line put forth one if its worst performances of the season. And the wide receivers didn’t make enough plays.
But just like Clemson’s defense learned from its loss in November, Notre Dame’s offense can learn from being exposed the second time around. Those lessons will be critical if the No. 4 Irish (10-1) want to compete with No. 1 Alabama (11-0) in Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (4 p.m. EST on ESPN).
Notre Dame’s offensive production has been almost identical between its 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) and 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) throughout the season. The Irish entered last Saturday averaging 7.2 yards per play with both personnel groupings.
But that trend didn’t continue in the ACC Championship. The Irish opted to use its 11 personnel for 37 of its 57 plays, excluding one quarterback kneel, with the same three wide receivers — Javon McKinley, Ben Skowronek and Avery Davis — the entire game. Those three ended up being the only receivers to play regardless of the personnel grouping. Yet when all three were on the field at the same time, Notre Dame averaged just 2.8 yards per play.
Any effectiveness in the passing game — 13-of-20 for 130 yards — was negated by five sacks and two scrambles that combined to lose 26 yards. And 10 designed running plays from 11 personnel netted a loss of one yard.
That trio shouldn’t be blamed for the lack of production in 11 personnel, but it’s surprising that Notre Dame didn’t try to mix up the wide receiver combinations with Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr. or Lawrence Keys III to give the Clemson defense something different to defend.
It’s natural for coaches to lean on their veteran contributors in the biggest moments, but the Irish needed to find a spark from someone else after the top options weren’t succeeding.
Falling behind in the second quarter shouldn’t have limited Notre Dame’s ability to lean on its 12 personnel either. The Irish averaged 9.6 yards on eight designed runs (aided by the 21-yard touchdown run by Chris Tyree) with two tight ends on the field, but only 5.4 yards per dropback.
Run for it
When Notre Dame fell behind by two scores for the first time since offensive coordinator Tommy Rees started calling plays, the Irish abandoned the run and couldn’t sustain drives.
After Clemson took a 14-3 lead in the second quarter, Book dropped back for three consecutive passes. He completed a nine-yard pass to tight end Michael Mayer on first down and proceeded to get sacked on the next two plays for a three-and-out.
On Notre Dame’s next drive, while trailing 17-3, the Irish started with an 11-yard pass to tight end Tommy Tremble. Then Rees called an obvious running play from the pistol formation, which requires a running back to be lined up behind Book in the shotgun.
Clemson saw the tendency coming. Since at least the Florida State game, the Irish haven’t passed out of the pistol formation. Heading into last Saturday’s game, Notre Dame had run it each of the last 25 times it lined up in the pistol formation. That streak may be longer, but I didn’t track it in the first two games of the season.
Though sparingly used, the Irish averaged 5.1 yards per play out of the pistol heading into Saturday. Then Clemson stopped running back C’Bo Flemister for a loss of four yards on the first attempt. The Irish would lose two more yards on two more plays from the pistol later in the game.
By halftime, Notre Dame trailed 24-3, so a lack of running plays in the second half shouldn’t be surprising. But the Irish probably shouldn’t have gone three drives in a row — excluding the kneel to end the first half — with no more than one running play per drive after falling down by two scores.
Better at center
Senior Josh Lugg hasn’t provided enough consistency at center in his two starts. His shotgun snaps haven’t always been on target, which resulted in a five-yard loss on the first drive against Clemson. Off-targets snaps that Book has managed to handle have also forced Book to take his eyes of the defense momentarily.
The 6-foot-7, 310-pound Lugg got pushed around too much last Saturday. He only allowed one pressure but was knocked back into the pocket a couple times too. Lugg also failed to sustain his run blocks a few times that caused disruption on inside runs.
If sophomore Zeke Correll’s ankle is healthy, the Irish should be compelled to put him back in the lineup at center. It’s a more natural position for Correll (6-3, 295), and Lugg’s size hasn’t given him an advantage.
Notre Dame’s lack of a developed screen game has given Book fewer options for easy yardage. Calling for more screens when a quarterback is repeatedly getting pressured is a natural response, but Rees would be asking the offense to execute something it hasn’t relied on much this season.
On plays that have appeared to be designed screens this season, Book has completed 26 of his 32 passes for 264 yards. At 10 yards per catch, that’s not bad production. But much of that yardage — 113 yards to be exact — came in the season opener against Duke. And 75 of those yards came on one screen to running back Kyren Williams.
Screens simply haven’t been a reliable staple for the Irish this season. Could it be a wrinkle for the playoff? If the offense sputters again, it should at least be considered, especially if Book isn’t going to stretch the field vertically. He only attempted two passes beyond 20 yards of the line of scrimmage against Clemson and both were broken up and intended for McKinley.