Analysis: Notre Dame's offense rediscovered third-down success at Duke

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Ian Book owned third downs against Duke.

Three of the Notre Dame quarterback’s four touchdown passes came on third downs in the 38-7 Irish road victory last Saturday.

When Book threw or ran on third down, the Irish converted eight times on 15 chances. On those 15 third downs, Book finished 9-of-14 passing for 78 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed once for 53 yards. Another third-down conversion on a Book pass to wide receiver Chris Finke was wiped out by a holding penalty on right guard Trevor Ruhland.

Book’s efficiency on third down may be the most impressive part of his bounce-back performance against the Blue Devils. For what may have been the first time since a 52-0 win over Bowling Green on Oct. 5, Book looked in complete control of the Irish offense.

Third downs have been a bit of a weakness for Notre Dame this season. Entering the Duke game, the Irish were converting on just 38.9 percent of their third downs, which placed the Irish in a tie for 72nd nationally with South Florida. Notre Dame moved up 13 spots in one week with the help of Book and a 52.9-percent conversion rate (9-of-17) on third downs against Duke.

Notre Dame’s third-down conversion rate in the Duke win tied its mark against USC for the second-best showing of the season behind only a 72.7-percent conversion rate against Bowling Green. The Duke game became only the third of the season in which Notre Dame’s offense converted third downs at better than a 42-percent clip.

Let’s take a closer look at what else allowed Book to find his groove on the road in Durham, N.C.

Finding Finke

The Chris Finke of old returned for Notre Dame at Duke.

The graduate student and captain caught five passes for 49 yards. Four of those receptions resulted in third-down conversions. Two of them turned into touchdowns.

Fellow wide receiver Chase Claypool remained Book’s favorite target with a team-high nine passes thrown his way, which included two pass interference penalties on Duke. Claypool caught five passes for 97 yards and one touchdown.

But Finke made catches all but two of the seven times he was targeted by Book. The first time Book threw to Finke, cornerback Josh Blackwell broke up the third-and-3 pass. Then Finke caught the next four passes thrown to him, drew a pass interference on his sixth target, and caught the last ball thrown his way for a six-yard touchdown to give Notre Dame a 28-7 lead early in the third quarter.

Notre Dame’s usage of three-wide receiver sets allowed Finke to more frequently play in his natural spot at slot receiver. The three-wide personnel provided the most production for Notre Dame’s offense against Duke. Of the 67 plays run by Notre Dame’s starting offense, 39 plays were run with three receivers (58.2 percent). Of the 437 yards and five touchdowns the starting offense accumulated, 285 yards and three touchdowns came with three receivers on the field (65.2 percent of yardage).

Book finished 12-of-22 for 165 yards and three TDs with two interceptions and one run for 12 yards on his 23 dropbacks with three receivers. The Irish even had success running the ball with three wide receivers on the field, with 16 designed runs for 108 yards (6.75 per carry).

But the running numbers looked even better with two tight ends and two receivers on the field. On 14 designed runs — of the 25 plays run with two tight ends — the Irish rushed for 141 yards (10 yards per carry).

Short and sweet

Book didn’t need to stretch the field to have success in Notre Dame’s passing game. All but two of his 18 completions came no farther than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He put together a passing performance of 16-of-22 for 116 yards and four touchdowns in that range.

When Book threw beyond 15 yards, it resulted in more bad news than good news. He threw as many interceptions, two, as completed passes on balls thrown beyond 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. The two completions, on nine attempts, resulted in 65 passing yards.

Book finished 18-of-31 passing for 181 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. His teammates helped out his passing totals by accounting for more than a third of his total passing yardage, with 67 yards after the catch.

Here’s a breakdown of Book’s passing numbers sorted by depth thrown relative to the line of scrimmage. It does not include his one throwaway.

Behind the line to 0: 5-of-6 for 15 yards with one PBU.

1-5 yards: 5-of-5 for 25 yards and one TD.

6-10 yards: 3-of-7 for 43 yards and one TD with two PBUs, one overthrow and one underthrow.

11-15 yards: 3-of-4 for 33 yards and two TDs with one overthrow.

16-20 yards: 0-of-3 with one interception, one overthrow and one drop.

21-30 yards: 1-of-4 for 30 yards with one interception, one PBU and one overthrow.

31-plus yards: 1-of-2 for 35 yards with one catchable pass falling incomplete.

Passable protection

Duke never dropped eight players in coverage. The strategy produced mixed results the previous week for Virginia Tech’s defense, but the Blue Devils stuck almost exclusively with four-man and five-man rushes.

That meant Notre Dame’s pass protection unit didn't receive many breaks. The offensive line, tight ends and running backs had to be prepared for at least four pass rushers at all times.

The result? A slightly below-average performance in keeping pressure away from Book. Duke pressured Book on 11 of his 35 dropbacks for a pressure rate of 31.4 percent. That’s right in the middle of Notre Dame’s performances this season, with four games better and four games worse. The Irish have allowed pressure on 30 percent of Book’s dropbacks this season.

The newest starters on the offensive line — right guard Trevor Ruhland and right tackle Josh Lugg — had the most difficulties in pass protection. They allowed three pressures each on Book. Left guard Aaron Banks (two) and left tackle Liam Eichenberg (one) also notched losses that lead to pressure on Book.

The remaining four pressures were a product of three unblocked defenders and one instance in which Book rolled out of the pocket unnecessarily and an unaccounted-for linebacker eventually decided to rush Book and pressure him.

Seven Duke defenders provided the 13 pressures on Book’s 11 pressured dropbacks. Defensive end Chris Rumph II was the most consistent threat with four pressures coming on three victories over Ruhland and one against Banks.

While Book did a nice job of staying in the pocket and trusting his protection against Duke, he still didn’t fare well against pressure. He finished 4-of-10 passing for 23 yards with one touchdown and one interception against pressure. The other five incomplete passes came on two overthrows, one throwaway, one PBU and one catchable pass. Book was also sacked once for a loss of one yard.

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Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) throws to tight end Cole Kmet (84) during the 38-7 victory at Duke.

On the season, Book is 163-of-281 for2,009 yards and 21 TDs with 6 INTs.

Below is a breakdown of Book's throws in relation to the line of scrimmage. The chart does not include his 26 throwaways.

Behind the line to 0: 45-of-59 for 355 yards and 3 TDs; 76 percent; 6 yards per attempt

1-5 yards: 52-of-68 for 418 yards and 6 TDs; 76 percent; 6.1 YPA

6-10 yards: 23-of-44 for 250 yards and 2 TDs with 2 INTs; 52 percent; 5.7 YPA

11-15 yards: 14-of-22 for 246 yards and 4 TDs with 1 INT; 64 percent; 11.2 YPA

16-20 yards: 8-of-20 for 168 yards and 1 TD with 1 INT; 40 percent; 8.4YPA

21-30 yards: 17-of-27 for 429 yards and 3 TDs with 1 INT; 63 percent; 15.9 YPA

31-plus yards: 4-of-15 for 143 yards and 2 TDs and 1 INT; 27 percent; 9.5 YPA