Analysis: Running away from risk was never going to get Notre Dame into playoff contention

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The brace on Notre Dame sophomore Brendon Clark’s right knee in warmups Saturday had implications beyond a shrunken safety net for Irish starting QB Ian Book.

It could, in fact, be a sign of reshaping what life at ND after Book looks like, in what should be an intriguing battle among Clark, freshman Drew Pyne and incoming prospect Tyler Buchner for the chance to top the depth chart for the 2021 opener, Sept. 5 at Florida State.

“Brendon had ACL surgery in high school. That knee has been cranky,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said during his weekly Monday Zoom conference call with the media.

“And so the knee brace is to give him some more stability for the rest of the season. Then he’ll get evaluated at the end of the season as to whether there needs to be a procedure, cleaning it up, or a reassessment as to where he is with that knee.”

Buchner, who will sign Dec. 16 with the Irish and plans to enroll at ND in February for the spring semester, would split reps in the spring with Pyne if Clark isn’t available to make it a three-way competition.

Clark was in uniform Saturday for No. 2 Notre Dame’s 45-21 home victory over Syracuse in the Irish regular-season finale, but it was third-stringer Pyne who came in to finish after Book took a curtain call with 5:03 left in the game.

Freshman Drew Pyne (10) looks on as fellow backup QB Brendon Clark (7) throws a pass during a Notre Dame football practice in August.

The Irish (10-0) have an open date Saturday, thanks to some reconfiguring by the ACC powers-that-be, before rematching with No. 3 Clemson (9-1) in the ACC Championship Game, Dec. 19 in Charlotte, N.C.

Pyne is presumably Plan B until further notice. The Irish are guaranteed at least one postseason game, either Jan. 1 in the College Football Playoff semis or Jan. 2 in the Orange Bowl.

It’s not like either Pyne or Clark have much game experience this year, though during much of the season Clark was getting 40 percent of the practice reps, per Kelly. The two backups have combined for five pass attempts and two completions this season to go along with Clark’s one attempt and one completion in 2019.

There were pockets in lopsided games where they could have been expanded windows for either to mop up, but Kelly and offensive coordinator/QBs coach Tommy Rees felt like the most prudent investment was to keep Book in games longer to advance both his game individually and a sputtering passing game that lacked consistent chemistry and timing earlier this season.

The payout so far has been beyond worth it, as Book is playing the best football of his career and the Irish are on a modern school-record pace for points per game (37.7).

They’re also at Kelly Era highs in national rankings for total offense (20th) and third-down conversion percentage (10th), and second in the Kelly Era for national ranking in rushing offense (13th).

Which brings us back to Book and the gulf of experience between him and the next man in at his position. Specifically, Book’s role in the nation’s 13th-most prolific running game and the risk in doing so.

He’s the team’s second-leading rusher to Doak Walker semifinalist Kyren Williams with 465 yards on 91 carries. And despite being second only to Tony Rice in career rushing yards at ND among QBs, his running prowess is easily the most overlooked facet of not only his game but the reason why the Irish are deep into the playoff discussion in November.

In other words, the risk of not running Book is much greater.

As you listen to opposing coaches after games against ND, their hope tends to have been to coax Book into being a pure pocket passer in their respective matchups. His legs, both extending pass plays and running, are what makes the No. 32 QB nationally in pass efficiency special, and elevates him to at least a peripheral Heisman Trophy contender.

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Book’s 5.1 yards-per-carry average is not only a career best, but it would rank sixth among QBs in the FBS if he were averaging the minimum 10 carries per game to qualify for the NCAA stats in that category (instead of his 9.1).

Rice, the gold standard when it comes to QBs impacting the ground game at ND, averaged 5.8 yards a carry and had nine rushing touchdowns in 12 games during the most recent Notre Dame national championship run, in 1988.

Among the six QBs whose teams currently rank 1 through 6 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings — likely to remain static Tuesday night — he’s second to Ohio State’s Justin Fields in rushing yards per game (46.5 to 47.8), after Fields rushed for 104 yards against Michigan State on Saturday. Book is 22nd among QBs nationally in rushing yards per game.

Book’s eight rushing TDs are the most among that 1-through-6 group. And he’s got more rushing yards than anyone on No. 6 Florida’s entire roster.

It’s been an evolution of sorts for a three-star prospect branded as a pro-style QB rather than dual-threat QB coming out of Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, Calif.

There was a more traditional structure to when Book ran and when he didn’t under former offensive coordinator Chip Long in the run/pass option (RPO) game (2018-19). Under Rees, Book often playing outside the offense’s original play call is what gives opposing defensive coordinators the biggest headaches.

It also has him on pace for a career high in carries.

“As you know we have very few designed runs for Ian,” Kelly said, “because part of who he is, is that you’re going to get some runs from him within the offense. What we have done is called some pass plays that have the run opportunities in them if he doesn’t like what he sees.

“So it’s kind of gone the opposite way for us in terms of designing the run game. In some instances, he has the opposite of an RPO, where he has the P-R-O — and it’s a pass-run option for him.

“So a little bit different from that perspective. And that’s by design, because of his ability obviously to see the field really well.”

And to this point stay healthy as well.

Playoff projecting

There are probably only six teams with a realistic chance to make the four-team playoff field, to be announced Dec. 20. But that’s not an absolute at this point.

There were regular-season games to be played Saturday by everyone in the top six except for No. 3 Clemson and No. 2 Notre Dame before the conference championship games are staged on Dec. 19. But the Aggies' Dec. 12 game with Ole Miss was postponed Monday night and may not be played. Then Tuesday morning, Cincinnati's regular-season game at Tulsa was canceled due to COVID-19 numbers at UC.

Texas A&M is the only one of the top 6 excluded from the championship games, but the Aggies are actually scheduled to play a makeup game with Tennessee that weekend.

Here’s a look at the remaining games for the CFP top seven, with Kelly’s old team — Cincinnati — still in contention with some upsets this weekend or perhaps if Ohio State’s Saturday matchup with Michigan is canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.

No. 1 Alabama (9-0): Dec. 12 at Arkansas (3-6), Dec. 19 vs. Florida (8-1) in SEC Championship Game

No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0): Dec. 19 vs. Clemson (9-1) in ACC Championship Game

No. 3 Clemson (9-1): Dec. 19 vs. Notre Dame (10-0) in ACC Championship Game

No. 4 Ohio State (5-0): Dec. 12 vs. Michigan (2-4), Dec. 19 vs. Northwestern (5-1) in Big Ten Championship Game*

No. 5 Texas A&M (7-1): Dec. 12 vs. Ole Miss (4-4) postponed on Monday night, Dec. 19 at Tennessee (2-6)

No. 6 Florida (8-1): Dec. 12 vs. LSU (3-5), Dec. 19 vs. Alabama (9-0) in SEC Championship Game

No. 7 Cincinnati (8-0): Dec. 12 at Tulsa (6-1) canceled on Tuesday, Dec. 19 vs. Tulsa (6-1) in AAC Championship Game

*If Michigan game is canceled, OSU could face Iowa (5-2) in a cross-divisional game on Dec. 19 if the league doesn’t allow it to play in the Big Ten Championship game for falling short of the six-game minimum.

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Ohio State remains the most difficult evaluation. Though it’s strong in four of the five metrics in which playoff contenders tend to excel, it would head into its conference postseason game having played one team (Indiana) that had won more than a third of its games this season.

And the Buckeyes are the only team among the top six who haven’t faced a team ranked among the top 30 in rushing defense. All the other five have faced at least two such teams.

Michigan (2-4) returned to practice Monday after pausing all football activities on Nov. 30. That doesn’t necessarily mean the OSU game is on. The program was still awaiting additional COVID-19 test results from Sunday and Monday, per the Detroit News, that will factor into whether the game can be played.

The Associated Press reported 12 Michigan football players tested positive last week, requiring a 21-day pause for those individuals, per Big Ten rules.

The CFP selection committee has hinted the disparity in the number of games played by teams could eventually become a factor in playoff selection, but so far it has not affected Ohio State.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) escapes from Syracuse defensive end Kingsley Jonathan on Dec. 5.