Analysis: Small nitpicks on a near-perfect performance by quarterback Ian Book

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Even the nitpicks of Ian Book’s performance in a dominant showing against Bowling Green feel small.

Sure, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback on Saturday could have thrown his last pass to Javon McKinley a little bit better. With a ball thrown in front of McKinley, maybe the senior wide receiver doesn’t drop what could have been Book’s school-record-tying, sixth touchdown pass.

But all four of Book’s incomplete passes were catchable in a 52-0 Irish victory at Notre Dame Stadium. He completed his first nine passes before throwing 40 yards downfield to wide receiver Michael Young. Bowling Green had a pair of defenders tracking Young, but Book still threw a ball that Young had a chance to bring down. The Falcons were fortunate to not be flagged for pass interference, as safety Jordan Anderson prevented Young — closing on the ball — from making a leaping catch.

Book’s next pass, on third-and-6, fell incomplete too. He scrambled to his left and threw a pass intended for wide receiver Chase Claypool 16 yards downfield. But Bowling Green cornerback JaJuan Hudson reached in front of Claypool to break up the pass.

The only other incomplete pass for Book, on a day in which he finished 16-of-20 for 261 yards and five touchdowns, came in the end zone in the third quarter. Book threw a pass high down the middle of the field to tight end Cole Kmet. Book tried to squeeze the pass to Kmet in between both safeties, but Bowling Green’s Anderson managed to get his left hand on the ball as it reached Kmet’s left hand.

Only the dropped pass by McKinley should be described as an easy catch. The three incomplete passes to Young, Claypool and Kmet would have been difficult catches. But Book still gave his offensive weapons opportunities to make plays. In a matchup so lopsided against Bowling Green, that’s exactly what he should have done.

Book never threw a pass away, in part because he was so infrequently pressured. Bowling Green managed to pressure Book on only four of his 22 dropbacks. That’s the third-lowest pressure rate (18.2 percent) Book has faced in any of his starts since the beginning of last season.

On those four pressured dropbacks, Book completed two of his three passes for 25 yards with the one incomplete pass coming on the pass breakup intended for Claypool. Book also ran once for a three-yard gain.

Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder didn’t dial up many overwhelming pass-rush schemes. On the 10 dropbacks Bowling Green rushed more than four defenders, Notre Dame had more offensive players in pass protection to account for them on all but two occasions.

Book picked apart Bowling Green when it sent five pass rushers. He completed 8-of-9 passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns, with the lone incompletion coming on the McKinley drop.

Notre Dame’s pass protection only allowed one unblocked pass rusher to pressure Book. Offensive tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey each lost once battle leading to a pressure on Book. On two other occasions, Book’s scrambling led to defenders pressuring him, but one of those came on the same play that Hainsey did a poor job to allow pressure.

Book had time to throw on that second-and-19 play. Running back Avery Davis came open deep in the middle of the field, but Book didn’t recognize him and was looking elsewhere. Book started to dance in the pocket, and Hainsey failed to sustain his block. Book made Hainsey’s defender miss and rolled to his right, where he was chased by another defender and forced to settle for a three-yard run.

Book may have been able to find Davis open late, but by that time Hainsey’s defender was barreling down on him.

It’s easy to pick apart a single play in slow motion and on replay, and it’s hard to know what Book’s progression was and should have been. But those are the moments that stand between Book taking another step as the quarterback in this offense.

If it’s a one-time miss on a nearly perfect throwing day, it’s acceptable. But the margin for error is much slimmer for Book when Notre Dame faces its best opponents.

Airing it out

Book didn’t lean on short passes to boost his production. The majority of his passing yards came before the catch. He completed passes an average of 10.4 yards down the field with his teammates averaging 6.25 yards after the catch.

More than half of his pass attempts were thrown beyond 10 yards down the field. Here’s a breakdown of Book’s 20 passes sorted by depth thrown relative to the line of scrimmage.

Behind the line to 0: 6-of-6 for 31 yards and one TD.

1-5 yards: 2-of-3 for 25 yards with one drop.

6-10 yards: N/A.

11-15 yards: 2-of-2 for 61 yards and one TD.

16-20 yards: 1-of-3 for 23 yards with two PBUs.

21-30 yards: 4-of-4 for 87 yards and two TDs.

31-plus yards: 1-of-2 for 34 yards and one TD with one catchable pass falling incomplete.

Book’s success between 21 and 30 yards continued. That seems to be his sweet spot this season. In that range, Book has thrown 11-of-14 for 267 yards and three touchdowns. His completion percentage at that depth, 78.6 percent, is close to his completion percentage on passes thrown behind or at the line of scrimmage (78.8 percent), though at a much smaller sample size (14 to 33).

The Irish seem to have identified something that’s working at that depth. If Book can continue to stretch the field a bit, it can make the offense less predictable.

That philosophy can be seen in Notre Dame’s effectiveness with play action. Now that the Irish running game has started to show some life, the Irish are producing off play fakes at a higher level. Against Bowling Green, Book finished 9-of-10 for 165 yards and two touchdowns following a play fake. He was never pressured on those 10 dropbacks either.

On the flip side, the Irish essentially abandoned the screen game against Bowling Green. One wide receiver screen to Young went for a two-yard loss when Kmet didn’t hold up his block near the sideline. The other screen was a bit less conventional. Kmet caught a pass at the line of scrimmage after cutting behind the line from the right side to the left. Four yards downfield, wide receiver Chris Finke had already set up his block to allow Kmet an easy conversion on third-and-4 and a 10-yard gain.

Getting personnel

The two-tight end look became the base personnel for Notre Dame’s offense against Bowling Green. The Irish utilized two tight ends on 26 of the 37 plays with the starting offense on the field.

The versatility of Notre Dame’s tight ends allows for the the two-tight end group to be unpredictable and balanced. Against the Falcons, the Irish actually opted to throw with two tight ends on the field more than run the ball.

Here’s a breakdown of Notre Dame’s production with each personnel grouping in the Bowling Green game.

Two tight ends: 26 plays.

Dropbacks (15): 11-of-15 for 152 yards and three TDs.

Designed runs (11): 120 yards.

Three wide receivers: 6 plays.

Dropbacks (4): 3-of-3 for 69 yards and TDs with one two-yard run.

Designed runs (2): 6 yards.

Two running backs: 5 plays.

Dropbacks (3): 2-of-2 for 40 yards with one three-yard run.

Designed runs (2): 15 yards.

Notre Dame’s ability to successfully run and pass with two tight ends is why the Irish will continue to lean on that personnel until teams find an answer for it. But with running back Jafar Armstrong returning to the offense, offensive coordinator Chip Long may be tempted to turn to more two-running back sets. The Irish used a combination of running back Avery Davis and Jahmir Smith for most of the final drive of the first half.

The plays to Davis failed — a short toss forward for no gain and a loss of nine yards on a reverse — on that drive, but the Irish struck with big plays by way of a 24-yard run by Smith and a 40-yard reception by tight end Brock Wright.

Long can be creative with the different options he has with all of the offensive skill players finally healthy, but he should resist the temptation to overthink what’s working best for Notre Dame right now.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book threw more touchdown passes (five) than incomplete passes (four) against Bowling Green.