Analysis: Real improvement for Notre Dame QB Ian Book goes beyond fluffing up his numbers

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Ian Book will get to experience something Saturday he actually got a taste of as a scout-team quarterback in practice three years ago.

Facing a Brian VanGorder defense.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly fired the now 60-year-old Bowling Green defensive coordinator four games into the 2016 season. He returns to Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m.; NBC-TV) in a working capacity for the first time since becoming the only coordinator (offensive or defensive) Kelly has actually purged in his 10 seasons with the Irish.

And VanGorder brings the kind of numbers with him that contributed to both the 2016 Irish getting off to a 1-3 start and the 2018 Louisville Cardinals flailing to a 2-10 record when he coordinated their defense last season.

The Falcons (1-3), 46-point underdogs and coming off a bye this past Saturday, are 117th nationally out of 130 FBS teams in rushing defense, 129th in pass-efficiency defense, 111th in total defense and 120th in scoring defense.

And that’s averaging into those figures giving up just three points and 70 total yards in a season-opening, 46-3 romp over winless FCS bottom feeder Morgan State.

Sounds like an opportunity to fluff up Book’s numbers.

Two weeks after the Irish senior quarterback was perched at No. 5 nationally in passing efficiency, he sits at No. 41 (the Irish are 31st in team pass efficiency, factoring in backups Phil Jurkovec and Brendon Clark).

It shouldn’t be any real solace that he’s 16 spots ahead of Clemson sophomore Trevor Lawrence, who shredded both Notre Dame’s defense and Alabama’s in the most recent College Football Playoff, or 22 spots ahead of Michigan’s chronically vaunted QB Shea Patterson.

And for ninth-ranked Notre Dame (3-1) to stay on a trajectory for a New Year’s Six berth and remain in the periphery of the conversation for the College Football Playoff, Book needs to evolve beyond big numbers against soft competition.

At No. 3 Georgia on Sept. 21, a 23-17 Irish loss, he had the poise and performance of a quarterback that looked ready to surge. Then against Virginia he was flat, particularly after an 8-for-8 start for 68 yards in the first quarter of a defense-driven, 35-20 triumph.

From that point on, Book was 9-of-17 for nine yards, piloted five three-and-outs in nine drives, and converted 2-of-11 third-down conversion opportunities — a stat which the Irish stand 114th nationally through the Virginia game.

Against admittedly the No. 1 sacking team in the nation coming in, Book committed a couple of intentional-grounding penalties.

What makes Book’s treading water Saturday a bit more curious/concerning is that the Irish are getting back key pieces to the offense.

Starting tight end Cole Kmet returned from a broken collarbone against Georgia and has 13 catches in two weeks. That’s just four fewer than what he amassed in his first two seasons at ND combined.

Projected starting wide receiver Michael Young came back from his broken collarbone Saturday to make his season debut and caught three passes.

ND’s short-yardage specialist in the run game, sophomore Jahmir Smith, returned from a two-game absence on Saturday. And Kelly recently commandeered cornerback Avery Davis to provide the running game with a speed option.

Starting running back Jafar Armstrong, out since the first quarter of the Sept. 2 opener at Louisville with an abdominal tear, is projected to return for the USC game (Oct. 12).

But adding in those assets seems to have unexpectedly created some chop for Book, at least mentally.

“There's a little bit of a continuity, trust issue, but I think the visual cues for the quarterback still can trump players that have not played a lot of snaps,” Kelly said Sunday. “And that's what we've got to get working on here in practice, and I think we can get through that so it doesn't become one of not being decisive.

“There are some plays out there where he knows he sees them after the fact. We're going to work on that decisiveness. Once he gets to that level, I think we're going to be in pretty good shape."

In the bigger picture, Notre Dame doesn’t look like most of the other teams in the AP top 10 when it comes to the five key metrics common among national title contenders and champions. Admittedly, the Irish have played stiffer competition than most, with the exception of Auburn.

Of those five metrics — rush offense, pass efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin — Notre Dame is in the top 30 only in turnover margin, a category in which the Irish lead the nation.

Keymetrics

They are trending in positive direction, though, in everything but passing efficiency. Most notably, ND has moved up from 120th to 110th to No. 71 in rush defense the past two weeks facing Georgia and Virginia.

“I think we're seeing better communication, continuity with the group, and just really guys just playing into what’s asked of them each and every week," Kelly said.

Even with key rotation piece — senior defensive end Daelin Hayes — out for the season with a torn labrum suffered Saturday, and starting cornerback Shaun Crawford out three to four weeks with a dislocated elbow sustained against Virginia, there’s optimism the defense has outgrown its growing pains and has options to move forward.

Saturday’s eight sacks, a Kelly Era high and one off the school record, helped nudge the Irish total defense ranking up seven spots to No. 53.

Even the rushing offense, with a fourth-quarter burst from senior Tony Jones Jr. on Saturday, moved up 10 spots to No. 75 after facing the No. 12 rush defense. And the Irish don’t face another rushing defense ranked higher than 89th nationally until November.

The instability in the running game hasn’t helped Book. But the belief among the coaching staff is that as a second-year starter, Book has the potential to transcend and/or camouflage growing areas in other position groups on the team.

That Michigan’s 40th-rated pass-efficiency defense represents the top challenge over the balance of the season means Book’s improvement must show up in the raw numbers and beyond.

If the Irish finish the regular season in the top 10, they’re likely to see a defense more similar to Georgia’s in the postseason than anyone else on their schedule.

“We're playing really physical and that's a good place to start,” Kelly said of an Irish offense that ranks 65th in total yards per game and 21st in scoring, “but the execution has got to be at a higher level.

“That is really what we’ll focus on this week — how we execute better for four quarters, not just starting fast and finishing strong, but through the middle part of the game.”

There’s a reason why Book is a captain and not just a quarterback. That process runs through him and starts with him.

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Notre Dame QB Ian Book (12) looks to throw during ND’s 35-20 win over Virginia, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (3-1) vs. Bowling Green (1-3)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 46