One might presume Notre Dame’s matchup this weekend has been circled on a few calendars for a while now. Not just those of Ball State alumni and fans throughout Indiana, but also the September pages of the Irish freshmen and understudies. Perhaps it is presumptuous to already speak of a Notre Dame blowout, but anything less than a three-possession victory would be quite the surprise.
Once leading by three possessions at or just after halftime, the Irish coaching staff will presumably turn to the second-string, namely one backup who had and has greater aspirations than mop-up duty against the Cardinals this season, one who will get that chance at some point or another, given the realities of football.
Junior quarterback Ian Book may have hoped to shine last week against Michigan, but that moment did not arrive. This weekend should show Book really can run “the entire offense at a high level,” to use Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s words.
If asked, Kelly would likely still deem Book “1B” rather than a backup quarterback, citing his proven ability to lead the Irish to victory. Kelly’s well-intentioned deference there may not be inaccurate, but it is also far from precise. Book is clearly Notre Dame’s backup, but he is a needed one. The 24-17 victory against the Wolverines proved that, when Irish senior Brandon Wimbush needed to head to the sideline despite having just run Notre Dame into the red zone.
“If we have to put [Book] in the game, the example of when Brandon got his eye poked, he can run the entire offense at a high level,” Kelly said.
In that moment, Book simply made one (correct) read and handed off the ball for a 13-yard touchdown scamper from sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong. Kelly has said, and Wimbush reiterated Saturday, that Book has a specific package catered to him.
“That’s one of the packages, one of those formations where he’s able to make those throws,” Wimbush said.
How much does that playsheet differ from the one offensive coordinator Chip Long uses for Wimbush? An early lead Saturday should give a few possessions of an opportunity to learn that with Book leading the way. It will not inherently be a moment to run down the clock and ease up on the scoreboard, as there is undeniable benefit to getting the backup quarterback repetitions outside of moments when trainers are looking at the starter’s eye.
Once Book notches a few possessions, the Irish should turn to freshman Phil Jurkovec. How will he look in his debut?
This is the most-obvious application of the NCAA’s shift regarding eligibility concerns. The likelihood of Jurkovec playing a few series or even a quarter in a blowout led this space to predict Book will attempt fewer than 75 passes this season, his 2017 total. Expecting him to fall short of that mark was both a statement of belief in Wimbush’s progress and an acknowledgement Jurkovec will take some or all of the 18 attempts Book received last year in mop-up moments.
If Notre Dame is indeed up 24 points or more in the fourth quarter, it will be safe to assume the defense will not give up more than two scores, even if the offense outright stalls. That kind of cushion should give the coaching staff ample comfort in trotting out the true freshman, and thus give Irish fans plenty of reason to stay tuned through the fourth quarter.
This is not to ask Notre Dame to run up the score. Doing so against the Cardinals will serve no greater good, but this is to ask Kelly and Long to let Jurkovec do more than take the snap and hand off to a running back. Seeing him go through a few live progressions and perhaps risk a pass or two into tight coverage would be appreciated, as it is unlikely much of Jurkovec is seen in October or November.
Jurkovec may be working behind the second-string offensive line, a unit rarely seen en masse. This does not provide the window to the future like a few possessions of Jurkovec will — if for no other reason than the five line positions do not turn over wholesale like the one player at quarterback does — but it may give some idea of the depth up front. Currently, only sophomore Josh Lugg can be viewed as viable and reliable depth. Every live rep he can get before being desperately needed will further ready him.
When sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey needed to receive an IV last weekend, junior right guard Tommy Kraemer moved out to tackle and Lugg stepped in at guard. The line’s efficiency did not drop off much, but it was clear Lugg was new to the field, just a bit out of step. He deservedly remains the failsafe in most injury situations, but that makes for only six linemen.
The rest of the second-unit: freshman left tackle Jarrett Patterson, sophomore left guard Dillan Gibbons, senior center Trevor Ruhland and sophomore right tackle Aaron Banks.
Patterson likely would not play in any situation but an emergency if not for the same NCAA rule benefitting Jurkovec. Along with the sophomores Gibbons and Banks, a few series of solid pass protection against live competition should offer a bright forecast for both this and next seasons’ line depth and the overall performance a year or two after that.
Looking elsewhere from the offense and the backups, the Irish cornerback duo of juniors Julian Love and Troy Pride may actually be tested this weekend.
At the least, they will have to do much more than they did last week and probably more than they will next week against Vanderbilt. The Wolverines averaged 6.9 yards per pass attempt, but if generously removing the 52-yard completion Love gave up to start the second half, that drops to 5.6 yards per attempt. That figure encapsulates much of Michigan’s difficulty moving the ball Saturday.
Ball State junior quarterback Riley Neal, meanwhile, averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, picking apart Central Connecticut State’s defense with the help of his receivers, sophomore Justin Hall, senior Corey Lacanaria and freshman Yo’Heinz Tyler. Such efficiency should not be expected again at Notre Dame, but Hall is a genuine talent who could portend how the Irish will handle Wake Forest junior dynamo Greg Dortch, and Tyler’s 6-foot-4 reach will be a good test case for when Stanford’s towering junior J.J. Arcega-Whiteside arrives in South Bend.
Speaking of Stanford, USC visits The Farm on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET (FOX). Whoever wins also gets the honor of being Notre Dame’s second-toughest game remaining, behind the Oct. 6 trip to Virginia Tech.
The Cardinal are now favored by six points, that spread moving more than two points in its favor over the last couple days.