Analysis: Notre Dame’s offensive line didn’t flinch in protecting Ian Book at VT

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s offensive line isn’t better off without Alex Bars at left guard. But in the first full game without its grad student captain, the Irish front five stood tall Saturday night in protecting quarterback Ian Book.

For the first time all season, Book was pressured on fewer than 10 of his dropbacks. The Irish offensive line — with help from the tight ends and running backs — kept Book well protected on 29 of his 38 dropbacks in ND's 45-23 road win. Virginia Tech’s defense was only able to pressure Book nine times (23.7 percent).

That’s more than half a percentage point better than the protection Book had against Wake Forest. It’s only the second time this season an Irish quarterback has been pressured on less than 25 percent of his dropbacks.

The pass protection allowed Book to work through some accuracy issues, particularly on deep balls. Despite finishing 25-of-35 passing for 271 yards and two touchdowns, Book logged his “worst” start of the season. He threw his first interception of 2018, but he bounced back to make plays when the Irish needed them in the second half.

These are the important numbers from Notre Dame’s passing game against Virginia Tech:

• Four of Virginia Tech’s nine pressures on Book came from an unblocked defender. I assigned blame to Liam Eichenberg for two pressures and center Sam Mustipher and running back Dexter Williams each with one loss resulting in pressure. Book also ran himself into one pressure.

Book finished 3-of-6 for 45 yards and one touchdown against pressure. His three incompletions were all overthrows. He was sacked twice for a loss of 11 yards and scrambled once for no gain.

• Book’s passing success varied significantly when connected with the number of defenders Virginia Tech sent in its pass rush. He torched the Hokies when rushing four, but he struggled against a five-man rush. Here’s how Book and the offensive line fared against each Virginia Tech pass rush.

Three-man rush (3 times): 2-of-3 for 25 yards with one overthrow.

Four-man rush (16 times): 13-of-14 for 184 yards and one touchdown, with one bad throw. Book had two runs for negative eight yards including one sack with an intentional grounding. Virginia Tech generated five pressures with a four-man rush.

Five-man rush (15 times): 8-of-14 for 51 yards and one interception plus five overthrows. Book was sacked once for a loss of three yards. Virginia Tech generated three pressures with a five-man rush.

Six-man rush (4 times): 2-of-4 for 11 yards and one touchdown with two overthrows. Virginia Tech generated one pressure with a six-man rush.

• Notre Dame’s pass protection scheme had the advantage on 35 of Book’s 38 dropbacks. The Irish had even numbers with Virginia Tech the other three times. That resulted in one completion for six yards, two overthrows and one pressure on Book.

• Anyone watching the game saw that Book struggled with deep passes against Virginia Tech. Here’s the passing chart that supports the obvious observation.

Behind the line of scrimmage: 7-of-7 for 28 yards.

1-5 yards: 5-of-5 for 21 yards.

6-10 yards: 7-of-9 for 68 yards with one interception. The other incomplete pass was an overthrow.

11-15 yards: 3-of-3 for 60 yards and two touchdowns.

16-20 yards: 2-of-2 for 38 yards.

21-30 yards: 0-of-2 with one overthrow and one bad throw.

31-plus yards: 1-of-7 for 56 yards with six overthrows.

• The majority of Book’s passing yardage came through the air. He completed his passes 156 yards down the field (6.24 yards per completion). The Irish recorded 109 yards after the catch (4.36 yards per completion).

Book’s 10 incomplete passes came at an average distance of 29.4 yards down the field. The total depth of throws came to 450 yards (12.86 per throw).

• Virginia Tech kept Notre Dame’s screen game in check. Book completed all seven of his screen passes for 28 yards. The Irish need 39 yards after the catch to reach that total. The screen passes went to four receivers: tight end Cole Kmet (2 for 11 yards), wide receiver Chase Claypool (2 for 9), tight end Alizé Mack (2 for 8), and wide receiver Michael Young (1 for 0).

• Notre Dame’s play fakes against Virginia Tech resulted in a mixed bag. In that scenario, Book completed 10 of his 15 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown, but he also threw one interception, had three overthrows and another bad throw. Book was also sacked for a loss of eight yards with an intentional grounding. He was only pressured twice following play fakes.

Takeaways

Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn has done an excellent job stabilizing his group after poor performances against Michigan and Ball State to start the season. The Irish allowed pressure on 54.3 percent of the dropbacks in those games. The season’s overall pressure percentage has decreased in each of the subsequent games. It has dipped down to 36.1 percent following the Virginia Tech victory.

Bars gave the Irish offensive line a dominating presence in both the running and passing games. The Virginia Tech game showed some stability without him in pass protection. Improving in the running game will be another important step in dealing with his loss. If you take out the 97-yard run by Dexter Williams and the two team rushes (a kneel and a 16-yard loss on the botched punt snap), the Irish averaged only three yards per carry at Virginia Tech, the nation's No. 4 rush defense coming in.

While Book’s inaccuracies downfield are a bit concerning, I’m not ready to overreact. First of all, if he’s going to throw so well on passes of 20 yards or less, I’m not sure it matters how inaccurate he is on deep throws as long as they’re not resulting in interceptions. He finished 24-of-26 for 215 yards and two touchdowns with one interception on throws of 20 yards or less against Virginia Tech.

Even if Book is missing on his deep throws, opposing defenses have to continue to defend those deep routes. They may be more willing to use only one defender on a deep route, but they still have to be cognizant of it. If they aren’t, Book will likely burn them at some point.

Lastly, Book’s deep throws appear to be the right decisions. He missed an open receiver a couple times, and he needs to cut down on those. But he’s seeing the field well and recognizing when he has an opportunity to take a shot at the defense.

It will be fascinating to watch in the coming weeks how defenses decide to defend Notre Dame’s offense as they get more film on Book and his cohorts.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) looks to throw as teammate Robert Hainsey (72) holds off Virginia Tech's Houshun Gaines (11) during the 45-23 Irish victory.