Analysis: Notre Dame’s offensive line struggles haven’t impacted Irish passing game

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame needs to run the ball better. The Irish can’t be satisfied with the three yards per carry they registered in the 31-21 victory over Northwestern.

That starts up front with better blocking from the revamped offensive line. The unit struggled creating a consistent push and occupying linebackers to create running lanes for quarterback Ian Book and the running backs.

But as the Irish sort out the running game, the offensive line has done a great job protecting Book in the passing game. For the second week in a row, Notre Dame allowed only five pressures on 37 dropbacks. The 13.5-percent pressure rate against both Navy and Northwestern has been by far the lowest of the season.

“That pass pro has been really good,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “We feel comfortable. Ian has got a good pocket to work out of. He's been really effective when we need to throw the football in key situations, fourth-down situations. So I feel really good.”

With that protection, Book was able to complete 22 of his 34 passes (64.7 percent) for 343 yards and two touchdowns without being sacked.

How did the Irish offense put together those passing numbers? Let’s take a closer look.

• On Saturday night, Kelly cited an adjustment to throwing to the wide side of the field as a reason for Notre Dame’s success in the second half. The numbers reflected that. Book completed all nine of his passes to the field side in the second half.

Here’s how Book fared throwing to the field, boundary and in between the hashes.

Field: 11-of-12 for 175 yards with one overthrow.

Boundary: 8-of-17 for 109 yards and one touchdown. His incomplete passes included three bad throws, two 50-50 balls, one overthrow, one drop and one pass breakup.

Middle: 3-of-5 for 59 yards and one touchdown with one overthrow and one 50-50 ball.

• When Northwestern was able to pressure Book, his production was negligible. Against five pressures, Book completed only one of his four passes for four yards and ran once for three yards. His incomplete passes were the result of one bad throw and two 50-50 balls.

• Two of the five dropbacks with pressure were the result of an unblocked defender. Both left guard Aaron Banks and running back Dexter Williams had poor blocks that led to pressures on different plays. The fifth pressure came on Notre Dame’s fake reverse pass. Both right tackle Robert Hainsey and wide receiver Chris Finke, who pitched the ball back to Book, failed to prevent their defenders from pressuring Book.

• Northwestern predominantly used a four-man rush against Notre Dame, but the Wildcats did so with a few different looks. At times, a defensive end would drop into coverage as a linebacker blitzed. But the Wildcats were most successful at rushing the passer with five defenders. Notre Dame always had at least one more player in pass protection than Northwestern had pass rushers.

Here’s how Book fared against each pass rush quantity.

Three-man rush (Six times): 4-of-6 for 59 yards and one touchdown with one bad throw and one pass breakup.

Four-man rush (20 times): 12-of-18 for 178 yards and one touchdown with three overthrows, two 50-50 balls and one drop. Book ran twice for 10 yards. Northwestern generated one pressure with a four-man rush.

Five-man rush (Nine times): 4-of-8 for 89 yards with two bad throws and one 50-50 ball. Book ran once for three yards. Northwestern generated three pressures with a five-man rush.

Six-man rush (Two times): 2-of-2 for 17 yards. Northwestern generated one pressure with a six-man rush.

• Notre Dame wasn’t afraid to stretch the field against Northwestern’s defense. Book threw more than 20 yards downfield seven times. Two of his three completions at that distance resulted in touchdown passes — a 20-yard catch for Miles Boykin (caught six yards deep in the end zone) and a 47-yard catch for Michael Young.

Here’s how Book’s throws were distributed regarding yards downfield.

Behind the line of scrimmage: 5-of-5 for 31 yards.

1-5 yards: 4-of-5 for 48 yards with one drop.

6-10 yards: 3-of-5 for 34 yards with two bad throws.

11-15 yards: 5-of-9 for 87 yards with one bad throw, one 50-50 ball and one pass breakup.

16-20 yards: 2-of-3 for 45 yards with one pass breakup.

21-30 yards: 2-of-2 for 51 yards and one touchdown.

31-plus yards: 1-of-5 for 47 yards and one touchdown with three overthrows and one 50-50 ball.

• Book hit on his 22 completed passes at an average of 9.9 yards downfield. The passing game including 132 yards after the catch. Book’s incomplete passes came at an average depth of 19.5 yards downfield.

• Notre Dame didn’t lean too heavily on its screen game against Northwestern. Book completed all three passes for 15 yards with the help of 23 yards combined after the catches from Williams and Boykin. Finke lost two yards on his screen reception.

• Book used play fakes on 13 of 37 dropbacks. He finished 8-of-13 for 138 yards with two overthrows and two 50-50 balls in those scenarios. Book was pressured twice following a play fake.

Takeaways

A repeat performance for Notre Dame’s pass protection was important. Even though Northwestern hasn’t recorded many sacks this season, the Wildcats provided more of a threat than Navy. It also showed that the reshuffled offensive line has established a good rapport and seem to be on the same page with regularity.

The failings in the running game have been more physical than mental, which could be seen as a positive or a negative. I think it’s easier to fix the mental mistakes with repetition but fixing the physical mistakes comes with better technique. Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn will continue to be tested. He has to find ways to make this inexperienced line better.

As for Book, his improvement in the second half really put a charge in Notre Dame’s offense. He completed 15 of his 19 passes (78.9 percent) for 236 yards and two touchdowns in the second half against Northwestern.

Better second half play has become a staple for Book. He’s 68-of-88 (77 percent) for 885 yards and 11 touchdowns with two interceptions in the second halves of his six starts.

Even though his final completion percentage Saturday was his lowest of the season, Book put in another impressive performance.

Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin (81) celebrates scoring with Aaron Banks (69) during the Notre Dame-Northwestern NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.