Defensive pressure, Ian Book make up for other worries in Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If the end of Notre Dame’s spring foreshadows its fall, then the Irish will lean on an explosive offense helmed by returning starting quarterback Ian Book to outpace an inconsistent at best, suspect at worst defense. Such defensive struggles should somewhat be expected with four of 2018’s starters to be drafted in two weeks, but they stand out as a deviation from coordinator Clark Lea’s first year, nonetheless.

Book picked apart Notre Dame’s defense, completing 16-of-21 passes for 220 yards and one touchdown. That stat line belies his overall efficiency, which stands out even more when realizing the quarterback’s red jersey skews the game a touch toward the defense, needing to get within only a vague arm’s reach to end a play.

“I thought his first drive was clean and efficient,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of an opening that saw Book go 5-for-5 for 63 yards and a score. “He moved the ball around to a number of different receivers. He had complete control of our offense. My sense was complete control in what he was doing and was very assertive.”

Book led only one second-half drive, and ceded a few in the first half to rising sophomore Phil Jurkovec, but when he was in, Book was on target even on a 43-yard shot down the sideline to rising senior receiver Chase Claypool, who finished with four catches for 92 yards. Close coverage from safety DJ Brown kept Claypool from trying to catch the ball in stride, but either way, Book’s longest pass of the day was at a spot where his receiver could catch it but no defensive back could come near it.

“I wanted to show them they can lean on me during a game situation,” Book said. “Some other things, testing the defense and giving our guys a shot on the deep ball.”

Jurkovec offered neither the same efficiency nor the same yardage, finishing 15-of-26 for 135 yards. His performance showed how far he has to go before being relied upon. Whether it was a want to hit the big play or simply delayed progression through his reads, Jurkovec held onto the ball far too long, over and over again. Drifting further back in the pocket added to the issue, giving the defensive ends better angles to reach him, when they already had plenty of time. All told, Jurkovec was sacked 12 times for 86 yards. Most, if not all, of those takedowns were legitimate, not only resulting from preemptive, red jersey-deferring whistles.

“We’ve had a number of sessions where I’ve said he’s still cooking, he’s still growing,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of things he learned today about recognition of when the ball needs to get out of his hand, the clock in his head, so to speak. Those are all things that getting a game like this today really helps him in that awareness. He’ll learn a lot from today’s experience about awareness.

“I think sometimes when you’re a quarterback, you get too locked into progressions. He’s got to get the ball out of his hands and take some one-on-one matchups when he’s got them. That’ll come. It’s just a matter of time.”

Some of that credit does go to the defensive line, both its starters and reserves, and perhaps that is the salve to the development Lea needs to yet oversee. Of those 11 sacks of Jurkovec, only two were from a starter, both from rising senior Khalid Kareem, who added one more of Book. His classmate Daelin Hayes added one, as well. The other 10 of 14 total came from reserves, with rising sophomore tackle Jayson Ademilola leading the way with a pair, matched by his twin brother Justin at end.

The Irish defensive line will have both quality and quantity in its chases of opposing quarterbacks. In the spring finale, that was to Jurkovec’s detriment and spurred the defense to a 58-45 victory over the offense.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Perhaps not the outright player of the game given Kareem’s three sacks, Book’s efficiency and rising junior running back Jafar Armstrong’s 156 total yards from the scrimmage, but rising sophomore running back Jahmir Smith stood out. He took eight carries for 56 yards and two touchdowns, adding three catches for 37 yards.

For someone Kelly described as a “truck,” Smith showed enough speed and agility to serve as Notre Dame’s needed third running back, distancing himself from C’Bo Flemister and Kyren Williams, despite Williams, in particular, putting together a solid afternoon for someone who should be worrying about a U.S. History exam with his high school classmates right about now.

PLAY OF THE GAME
In a scrimmage scoring system that somewhat devalues turnovers, let’s not take that stance here. Rising senior safety Jalen Elliott chased down Armstrong from behind and perfectly timed a punch through the ball to force a fumble recovered by rising senior cornerback Troy Pride. It negated a 22-yard gain and showed again the solid backline presence Elliott should provide when combined with Alohi Gilman.

STAT OF THE GAME
The four lead backs — Armstrong, Smith, Williams and Flemister, with rising senior Tony Jones sidelined for the day — combined for 176 rushing yards on 31 carries, a 5.68 average rush.

In an intrasquad scrimmage, there are two ways to look at that: The Irish ground game could be a force to be reckoned with, or the Notre Dame defense will struggle against the run. The truth undoubtedly falls somewhere between the two.

But given how formidable the Irish defensive line is, no matter how much inexperience and how many questions persist at linebacker, the stat should be considered more boon than bane.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“No injuries. Always happy about that, when we can leave injury free.” — Kelly

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
10:47 — Touchdown. Michael Young 12-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good.
8:06 — Touchdown. Book 7-yard rush. Doerer PAT good.
4:22 — Touchdown. Kyren Williams 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good.

Second Quarter
14:56 — Touchdown. Jahmir Smith 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good.
8:35 — Field goal. Doerer 35 yards.
3:02 — Touchdown. Smith 3-yard rush. Doerer PAT good.
0:34 — Touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good.