Analysis: Notre Dame's passing game struggled with puzzling Ian Book performance

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

In April, Ian Book said he wasn’t worried about his ability to throw the deep ball.

“I know I can throw the deep ball,” Book said following the Blue-Gold Game. “We’ll see this upcoming season.”

In his first opportunity to quiet any doubters in 2019, Book didn’t even attempt a deep pass in Notre Dame’s 35-17 win over Louisville on Monday night.

Disregarding all four of Book’s intentional throwaways against the Cardinals, Book didn’t throw a pass to a target deeper than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Book did connect on his deepest throw of 20 yards. He hit tight end Tommy Tremble in stride for a 26-yard touchdown pass to put Notre Dame up 28-14 in the third quarter.

The senior captain did enough to win the game, but his lack of deep balls was only one part of an eyebrow-raising performance. Book struggled to stay calm in the pocket, ran more than he needed to and put his receivers in tough positions to make catches.

Book simply didn’t look like a quarterback coming off a season with a 68.2 percent completion rate and a 8-1 record as a starter. Notre Dame needs Book to be sharper if a return trip to the College Football Playoff is going to remain a possibility.

As the Irish deal with injuries to three key starters — running back Jafar Armstrong, tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Michael Young — Book has to be the conduit to spark this offense.

Throwing short

Book finished Monday’s game with 193 yards and one touchdown on 14-of-23 passing (60.9 percent). But most of those passing yards were a product of the pass catchers.

Of Book’s 193 passing yards, 111 of those yards were registered after the catch. Book’s 14 completions were caught an average of 5.9 yards down the field. Even Book’s incomplete passes were thrown to shallow targets. Disregarding Book’s four throwaways, his five incomplete passes were thrown to targets an average of five yards down the field.

Book was accurate when he wasn’t throwing the ball away. Here’s how he fared on those 19 attempts at varying depths down the field.

Behind the line of scrimmage to 0 yards: 2-of-4 for 11 yards with one drop and one overthrow.

1-5 yards: 5-of-6 for 66 yards with one pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.

6-10 yards: 4-of-6 for 40 yards with one overthrow and one pass breakup on a bad throw.

11-15 yards: 2-of-2 for 50 yards.

16-20 yards: 1-of-1 for a 26-yard touchdown.

The fact that Book attempted just three on-target throws beyond 10 yards sounds like a stat reserved for a triple-option quarterback. But that’s how little Book pushed the ball down the field against Louisville.

Despite all the short throws, Book also didn’t throw any screen passes. Notre Dame used wide receiver screens in many games with Book leading the offense last season. His ability to throw accurate passes quickly has allowed for receivers to easily pick up yardage on those screens.

Without the screen game, wide receiver Chris Finke made just one reception against Louisville. He caught 49 passes last season.

It would be surprising to see Notre Dame have another game this season that includes no screen passes and no completions deeper than 20 yards down the field. Unless the Irish are going to absolutely dominate in the running game, the offense can’t afford to limit itself so much in the passing game.

Running wild

Book finished the Louisville game with one less carry than Notre Dame’s leading running back: 14 for Book and 15 for Tony Jones Jr. But Book’s heavy usage didn’t necessarily come by design. Eleven of Book’s registered carries came on plays he dropped back to pass at the snap.

The 11 dropbacks that turned into Book runs produced a wide variety of results. Three of them resulted in sacks for a combined loss of 14 yards. The other eight runs netted 76 yards and one touchdown.

Book’s 11-yard touchdown run showed why his ability to make plays with his feet is so valuable to Notre Dame’s offense. After the snap, Book pump-faked a swing pass screen to Jones to the right side. But he somehow anticipated an opening to the left side, sprinted to the goal line and dove into the end zone. Perhaps it was a planned quarterback draw all along. Either way, it worked.

Book wasn’t pressured on that third-and-goal play, but he knew it was time to run. Book also converted a third-and-4 when he decided to run following a dropback without pressure.

But sometimes Book’s decisions to run backfired. Twice Book decided to run on a third-down dropback without pressure and failed to pick up the first down.

Book’s worst decision to run came late in the second quarter. Book faked a handoff to Jones to set up a seven-man pass protection unit. Louisville rushed five defenders as Jones helped the offensive line and tight end Brock Wright pick up the pass rush. Yet Book still decided to run. Before he could escape the pocket, Book ran into Wright’s back, which caused him to fumble and allowed Louisville to recover.

The other two Louisville sacks of Book came when he was under pressure. Book started the game for Notre Dame with a 37-yard run when he was pressured to his right. No defenders in coverage had eyes on Book and he took advantage of the opening.

Book chose to run three other times when he wasn’t pressured that resulted in positive yardage but not first downs.

Notre Dame’s offensive line provided decent pass protection for Book. Only 11 of his 34 dropbacks included pressure. And two of those pressures were unforced errors Book caused with his own scrambling.

The pressure rate of 32.4 percent allowed against Louisville is better than the pressure rates in five of Notre Dame’s games last season.

Tough catches

Book completed three passes that put his wide receivers in tough positions.

The worst offense came on Notre Dame’s fourth-down conversion attempt in the second quarter. Needing just four yards, Book looked for Finke on a shallow crossing route to his right. Louisville rushed just three defenders, and Finke was running open. But instead of leading Finke to allow him to catch the ball and pick up the first down, Book threw it low. That caused Finke to fall to the ground while securing the pass.

Book rushed the throw unnecessarily. He wasn’t under any pressure from the pass rush. He probably could have hit Chase Claypool on a crossing route heading the other direction to convert the fourth down too. As Book ran off the field, he appeared to let out a yell in frustration with himself.

Book’s only other throw to Finke in the game was also off target. Book attempted to connect with Finke on an out route on third-and-4 late in the third quarter, but he threw the ball behind Finke. That allowed cornerback Chandler Jones to break up the pass. Unless Book expected Finke to not continue running toward the sideline, it was another uncharacteristic throw.

Both Claypool and wide receiver Lawrence Keys III made tough catches on Book passes thrown behind them. The throw to Claypool, which resulted in a 16-yard gain, may have been intended to protect him from taking a shot from a nearby defensive back. Keys did a heck of a job hauling in his second career catch for a 10-yard gain on third-and-7.

Quarterback Ian Book’s deepest completion in Notre Dame’s 35-17 win over Louisville came just 20 yards down the field.