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Things We Learned: Turning to Book gets Notre Dame’s offense and defense on same page

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Ian Book’s final stats do not lie. After he completed 73.53 percent of his passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns, with another 47 rushing yards and three scores coming on nine carries, it can be said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly undeniably made the right choice starting the junior quarterback and heretofore backup in Saturday’s 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest.

Part of Kelly’s decision tied to the opponent, recognizing a defensive approach designed to keep plays in front of it, in part because the Irish (4-0) run a similar scheme under defensive coordinator Clark Lea, less than two years removed from his own one-year stint with the Deacons (2-2).

“This is a perfect game for Ian Book,” Kelly said. “It’s quarters coverage. You know what you’re going to get. It’s a perfect game for him.”

It played right into Book’s accurate mid-range game. He completed 17-of-31 in his only other career start (Senior Brandon Wimbush was sidelined with a mild foot injury), a 54.84 percent rate, and 14-of-19 in the Citrus Bowl, 73.68 percent. The pros of playing Book rely on his ability and accuracy in the playbook and scheme, something he may not have fully grasped in 2017.

“Another year in the system has sharpened his progression reads and things of that nature,” Kelly said.

That showed. Wake Forest had no chance of stopping Book’s precision attack. When that sharp, a weapon does not need to explode to be effective. Death by a thousand paper cuts yields the same effect as multiple gashes downfield do. But he does not have the same ability to stretch the field vertically. The addition of a third data point provided enough evidence to tangibly see the differences between Book and Wimbush.

Book’s deep ball is lacking. As part of the design, Notre Dame did not need it since the Deacons gave up crossing routes and bubble screens as their version of bend-don’t-break allows. (But okay, break. Wait, no, shatter.)

Book’s longest throws of the day were both about 29 yards through the air, sideline completions to freshman receiver Kevin Austin and junior receiver Chase Claypool. Book placed his toss to Austin perfectly with a nearly indefensible pass. His connection with Claypool, however, showed the difficulty Book may have with a deep ball. If the pass had more distance on it, Claypool would have strolled into the end zone. Instead, it became an unintentional back-shoulder throw with the defensive back catching up to a slowed-down Claypool just as the ball did.

Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book’s best asset is his accuracy, not his deep ball or arm strength. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Book’s only other downfield heave of note was again to Austin, traveling 44 yards past the line of scrimmage and drawing a pass interference penalty. While it still could have been caught, it likely would have been if Book had led Austin rather than negating the stride lead he had on his defender with a slightly under-thrown pass.

This is the trade-off. Wimbush has a much stronger arm, which occasionally allows him to fit a ball into an inadvisable window and other times leads to unexpected deep threats. He is also inaccurate, having exceeded a 50 percent completion rate with a minimum of 20 pass attempts only five times in 15 career starts, 10 of which reached that minimum.

Against the Deacons, “a perfect game” means the Irish paper cuts add up. Credit to Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal for bringing this sequence to the surface: Notre Dame and Wake Forest have met twice in the last nine games. In those two, the Irish have gained 710 and 566 yards of total offense, an average of 638 yards. In the seven games between, Notre Dame averaged 352.71 yards of total offense.

This explosion does not directly tie to the institutional knowledge provided by Lea and previously Mike Elko. It instead speaks to the luxuries of facing Wake Forest. By O’Neill’s math, the Irish average 5.36 yards per play in those seven intervening games, while ripping the Deacons for 7.98 yards per play.

Book played well. As did Notre Dame.

But to some degree, Wake Forest is just a great matchup for the Irish offense. Usually this space abides by the belief that once is an incidence, twice is a coincidence and three times marks a trend, but the numbers against the Deacons are so disparate, the pattern needed only two games to be apparent. (If curious, the two next meet again in 2020.)

Notre Dame will not make 56 points a habit, no matter who is at quarterback. Book will not routinely throw for three bucks and a quarter while padding the stats of 10 different targets. He may, given a proper sample size, routinely complete 60 or even 70 percent of his passes, a direct symptom of taking what the defense gives rather than testing high-risk/high-reward jump balls.

Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill racked up eight tackles with two for loss including this sack during Saturday’s 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest. For the first time this season, Tranquill did not need to play every single defensive snap. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

That passing accuracy led to offensive effectiveness which, in turn, led to the Irish defense getting some genuine breaks.

That was part of why Kelly made the change. Facing one of the country’s fastest-paced offenses, repeatedly and frequently exposing Lea’s defense to Wake Forest’s tempo would have spelled undeniable exhaustion for Notre Dame’s primary defenders.

“We played 97 snaps against Ball State,” Kelly said. “It was going to break. It needed to get fixed now. … We were putting too much stress on the other parts of the operation, in particular the defense.”

The Irish ran 72 plays against the Cardinals and 76 against the Deacons. Similarly, Ball State ran 97 plays while Wake Forest managed 92.

The difference? Seven of Notre Dame’s 15 possessions two weeks ago lasted six plays or fewer without ending with a score, not including kneeling out the clock at the end of the game. This weekend, only five out of 15 possessions struggled such. Two weeks ago, just a pair of Irish drives lasted longer than three minutes. Three did so Saturday.

That may not seem an exorbitant increase, but the rewards are exponential. Furthermore, every touchdown scored equals a few more real-world minutes spent on an extra point attempt and elongated commercial breaks, sandwiched around a kickoff.

Those starters’ rests eventually included the debuts of backup linebackers. For the first time this season, Notre Dame brought senior Te’von Coney and fifth-year Drue Tranquill to the bench. This is not exactly something learned, just something finally seen beyond theory. Junior Jonathan Jones spelled Coney, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath stepped in for Tranquill, and at one point senior rover Asmar Bilal moved to Tranquill’s spot in a nickel package, showcasing another form of plausible depth. In addition to his increasing duties on special teams, freshman Bo Bauer also took some turns at linebacker.

Bauer finished with six tackles, Bilal and Genmark Heath each notched four and Jones had three including one behind the line of scrimmage. Such chances create a pathway to Tranquill and Coney having some life left in their legs in November, a necessity if Notre Dame is to continue to dream the dreams spurred by an undefeated record through four weeks.

A dream now burgeoned by Book, affecting both the offense and the defense in positive ways.

It seems a requirement to include some piece of mindless wordplay somewhere here, so let it be one more piece of caution. In routing a Power Five opponent on the road, the Irish once again showed enough glimpses of the potential, greater glimpses than seen yet this season, needed to even ponder certain possibilities.

But by absolutely no means does that make it advisable to book any travel plans to northern California just yet. Bide time for at least two more weeks. They will develop this season’s plot more than the last four weeks, or even nine months, have.