Throws, not wins, show better picture of Notre Dame QB Ian Book

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Ian Book had an easy out to answer the question.

When Notre Dame’s starting quarterback was asked Tuesday to identify his favorite throw of the season, he could have easily picked his most recent highlight from three days prior: a 73-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ben Skowronek at Pittsburgh.

Book also could have leaned on some sort of cliche to explain how every throw matters or list off multiple throws to avoid choosing just one. But Book didn’t treat the question like a parent asked to choose a favorite child. One specific throw came to mind.

“Probably the third down throw against Louisville where they pretty much had 11 guys on the ball,” Book said. “We needed the first down. It was kind of a had-to-get-it (throw).”

The throw came on third-and-6 from Notre Dame’s 37-yard line with a little more than five minutes remaining in the 12-7 Irish victory. It was the first third down of a drive that ran out the final 7:55 of the game.

At the snap, Louisville had 10 players within seven yards of the line of scrimmage. Louisville outside linebacker Truman Geathers blitzed off the left edge and forced Book to start floating to his right while looking for his target.

That’s when Book saw the opening he was looking for even though it was a small window. He didn’t have time to set his feet. He had to release the ball with his feet and shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage.

But Book was able to create enough torque to fire the football to wide receiver Javon McKinley. The ball had to travel past Skowronek and the defender trailing him and fit in the space McKinley occupied between a defender behind him and the umpire official in front of him. The throw was an absolute dart.

“It was a play we put in that week, probably repped a few times and we were able to go out there and execute,” Book said. “We were able to fit the ball through a really tight window. Javon did an unbelievable job and kept the drive alive.

“That was a long drive. It took a lot of time off the clock. That’s what we needed.

“When you call something like that on third down, it’s confidence. That’d be the throw that I would say we needed, had to have it and we were able to make it work.”

And yet after that 12-7 win, Book was frustrated. Rightfully so after a game in which he completed just 11 passes on 19 attempts for 106 yards and was sacked four times. Book rebounded with his best passing effort of the season at Pittsburgh: 16-of-30 for 312 yards and three touchdowns.

In the Pitt postgame press conference, Skowronek revealed that Book was visibly frustrated after the Louisville game and focused that frustration on better play throughout the week of practice ahead of Louisville.

No matter how many times head coach Brian Kelly calls Book a winner, that won’t prevent Book from being privately critical of his own performances in a win and working with offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees to make improvements.

“I just didn’t play to my standard (against Louisville),” Book said. “Missed some reads that I shouldn’t be missing. I was able to get back in the QB room with coach Rees and prepare the right way to go out there and forget about it and move on and do what I needed to do against Pitt.

“But yeah, I was frustrated with myself. I just wanted to play better. We were able to get the win, but there was stuff out there that I needed to do better. I feel like as a team we’re ascending at the right time. I feel like my game is starting to ascend. It needs to keep doing the same thing.”

Book likely doesn’t need to play great on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC) for No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) to beat Georgia Tech (2-4, 2-3). The Yellow Jackets rank No. 93 in the FBS in scoring defense for allowing 41.2 points per game. They rank near the bottom in total defense too: No. 87 for 479.2 yards per game.

The Irish aren’t interested in just doing enough to win anymore though. That’s been the message Kelly has preached to his team since the Louisville game. Notre Dame will need to play near its best the following week to beat No. 1 Clemson (6-0, 5-0) even if star quarterback Trevor Lawrence remains sidelined with COVID-19.

So Book and the Irish need to play to the same standard this Saturday in what should be a laugher against Georgia Tech.

“We have to go down to Georgia Tech and get the win, and then it’s time for Clemson,” Book said. “But I think it was the right message just to get guys to understand that (Clemson) game’s been circled on our list for a while now. It’s an extremely important game, and I think the guys are just extremely excited for it.

“That’s why you come to Notre Dame. You come to Notre Dame to play in huge games like that. We have an opportunity to go out there and play our best and play Clemson.

“It’s something you see on the schedule, something circled for sure, but we have a job to do this week first.”

Against Georgia Tech, Book shouldn’t need to make the kind of pass he made to McKinley, but the offense could certainly use more plays like his long touchdown to Skowronek against Pitt. That play never happens if Book tries to scramble away from pressure — which he does to a fault at times — or he doesn’t trust Skowronek to make a play in coverage.

Book, who is 74-of-124 passing for 1,026 yards with six touchdowns and one interception this season, has moved into second in program history for quarterback rushing yards with 1,199 thanks in part to his ability to avoid sacks and scramble for first downs. But his ability to consistently deliver on deep passes keeps a ceiling on Notre Dame’s offense.

Last season, Book finished 9-of-21 for 376 yards and five touchdowns and one interception on throws caught beyond 30 yards of the line of scrimmage. His 73-yard touchdown to Skowronek, which was caught 38 yards downfield, was his first connection beyond 30 yards of the season. He was off target on his four previous attempts.

“I don’t want to completely get rid of all my escapability, but at the same time I want to stay in there and make throws that I can make and take it on the chin if I have to,” Book said of his throw to Skowronek. “That was one of those plays. The protection was fine. I was in there for a while. There’s no problem.

Book said he knew Skowronek was fast enough to get to where he wanted to throw the ball.

“It was Ben’s time to step up and do that,” Book said. “I was throwing to an area. I knew he could go up and get it. He showed that. He’s going to do that the rest of this season. I wasn’t going to escape on that one. I was going to stay in there and let him go get it. I’m glad I did.”

If all goes as planned, Book will win his 26th game as a starting quarterback in Atlanta on Saturday. The description of winner will continue to follow him, but it will feel even more hollow if the 27th doesn’t come against Clemson the following week. His passing efficiency rating of 143.5, which ranks No. 42 in the FBS, doesn’t scream greatness.

Skowronek has called Book a winner too. The two have become close friends since he grad transferred to Notre Dame from Northwestern. But it feels different when Skowronek says it. From Skowronek’s perspective, Book’s a winner on top of all the other attributes he’s praised.

“I love him as a quarterback,” Skowronek said. “He’s a damn good football player.”

Living up to that label requires more than just wins on a quarterback’s résumé. Whether it’s a third-down dart or a deep-ball strike, he has to make the throws.

Ian Book has rushed for more yards than any Notre Dame quarterback not named Tony Rice. Book, with 1,199 yards, entered the week trailing Rice in the program record book by 722 yards.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, left, hands off to running back Kyren Williams in the first half of a 45-3 win over Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, center, was pressured frequently by Pittsburgh’s pass rush.