Analysis: Charting Notre Dame's offensive line improvement against Vanderbilt's pass rush
Notre Dame’s offensive line needed to protect its quarterback better.
After the Michigan and Ball State defenses provided pressures on 54.3 percent of the dropbacks for Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush in the first two games, the spotlight was on the ND pass protection.
Notre Dame’s front line delivered. After a thorough review of the film from Saturday’s 22-17 win over Vanderbilt, I credited the Commodores with only 11 pressures on 31 dropbacks (35.5 percent). The Irish did not allow a sack.
The better protection didn’t lead to a prolific day passing. Notre Dame fared better on the ground with 245 rushing yards and one touchdown on 48 carries (a season-high 5.1 yards per carry).
Below are some notes on how Notre Dame’s offensive line fared against Vanderbilt’s pass rush and how that impacted the play of quarterbacks Wimbush and Ian Book.
• As previously mentioned, Notre Dame’s quarterbacks dropped back to pass 31 times. Those dropbacks resulted in 16-of-27 passing for 135 yards and one touchdown. That includes one incompletion from Book on a two-point conversion try. Box scores don’t include two-point conversions in individual statistics, but I will for the sake of this column.
Wimbush finished 13-of-23 passing for 122 yards. Book finished 3-of-4 for 13 yards with a two-yard touchdown to tight end Nic Weishar.
The other four dropbacks resulted in four runs for a total of 12 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown run by Wimbush. Book scrambled once for a loss of three yards. Wimbush ran for one yard and two yards on his other two scrambles.
• The majority of Vanderbilt’s 11 pressures came from unblocked defenders. Six times a free pass rusher pressured Notre Dame’s quarterbacks. I assigned blame to five different Irish players for the other five pressures: one each for left tackle Liam Eichenberg, right tackle Robert Hainsey, center Sam Mustipher, running back Tony Jones Jr., and Wimbush.
• Wimbush and Book fared fairly well against those 11 pressures. Wimbush completed four of his seven passes for 52 yards and ran once for two yards against eight pressures. Book completed one of his two passes for a two-yard touchdown and ran once for a three-yard loss.
• Vanderbilt brought anywhere between three and eight pass rushers at various times throughout the game. The Commodores most frequently used a four-man and five-man pass rush.
• The Commodores used a three-man rush only once. Wimbush overthrew Chase Claypool on that play in the first quarter.
• The Commodores used a four-man rush 13 times, which resulted in four pressures. Wimbush completed 7-of-10 passes for 112 yards and ran once for one yard. Miles Boykin also drew a defensive pass interference on a Wimbush pass against a four-man rush. Book’s only snap against a four-man rush resulted in a three-yard loss on a scramble forced by pressure.
• The Commodores used a five-man rush 11 times, which generated four pressures. Wimbush finished 4-of-9 for five yards with two bad throws, one overthrow and one jump-ball throw. Three of Wimbush’s four completions came on screen passes. He did not complete a pass against the four pressures.
Wimbush also ran twice for 14 yards including his 12-yard touchdown run.
• The Commodores used a six-man rush five times, which resulted in two pressures. Book completed two of his three passes against a six-man rush, with one coming in the face of pressure. Wimbush finished 1-of-2 for eight yards.
• The Commodores used a seven-man rush once. Wimbush completed a pass for a loss of three yards on a bad throw to Chris Finke on screen.
• The Commodores used an eight-man rush once. Book completed his two-yard touchdown pass to Weishar against this look with pressure.
• Notre Dame had the advantage of more pass blockers than pass rushers on 21 of the 31 dropbacks. Vanderbilt generated seven pressures in those scenarios. When the Irish were even or outnumbered against the Vanderbilt pass rush, they allowed five pressures on 10 dropbacks.
• Bonus observation: Notre Dame’s quick screen game against Vanderbilt was ineffective. Wimbush threw five screens for a total of three yards. Four went to Finke, who finished with a net of negative-one yard despite an eight-yard gain on his first screen reception. Freshman wide receiver Kevin Austin caught one screen for four yards.
Surprisingly, Vanderbilt didn’t throw more eight-man coverages at Wimbush. The previous week against Ball State, Wimbush really struggled against a three-man rush.
Wimbush ate up the four-man rush even when his line faltered in a few spots. His 7-of-10 effort for 112 yards was the highlight of his otherwise shaky day throwing the football.
The quick screen throws are a staple for the run-pass option, but they weren’t fooling Vanderbilt. I’m not sure the risk of those throws, which Wimbush has struggled with, are worth the potential reward. Finke isn’t Will Fuller, and the other Irish receivers need to block better on the edge to spring him free.
If Notre Dame plans to continue to use Book like it did against Vanderbilt, he’s likely going to have to make throws under duress. Those play fakes out of the heavy sets are inviting the second- and third-level defenders to commit to stop the run and create wide open receivers. He did well in the limited sample. His only incompletion came on the two-point attempt out of a shotgun look.
Kudos to Notre Dame’s offensive line for picking up its play, especially Eichenberg and Hainsey. They’ve been suspect against the pass rush on the edge to start the year, but they played well against Vanderbilt. If those two can eliminate mistakes, the unit will continue to make improvements.