If Ian Book had not offered the best game of his season, if not his career, at No. 3 Georgia a few weeks ago, then Notre Dame would likely have been run off the field. Perhaps that feels odd considering that was the only game this season in which he threw an interception, in fact throwing two, but that comes with the territory when attempting 47 passes against an excellent defense because the Irish offense had no choice but to be one-dimensional.
At some point in the next two months, No. 10 Notre Dame is likely to be forced to the air like that again, be it because of defensive scheming or simply an ineffective running game, even with this weekend’s expected return of junior running back Jafar Armstrong. Most likely, that will come after the Irish idle week at Michigan, the only stout defensive challenge remaining, per Pro Football Focus.
But it could come this weekend against USC. Stranger things have happened in the 88 previous meetings between the rivals.
Book is now coming off the most efficient game of his career. A stat line of 16-of-20 for 251 yards and five touchdowns will be hard to replicate. But even against the inept excuse of a defense known as Bowling Green, Book’s senior season struggles were apparent, as was the evidence he is more than capable of putting together a performance a la Athens again.
Beginning with the criticized throws, as few as there were in an afternoon with more touchdown passes than incompletions …
Irish head coach Brian Kelly was critical of that first throw, a deep bomb down the middle for junior receiver Michael Young. Some argued it should have drawn a defensive pass interference flag, but if there was any penalty, it was on Young for initiating the contact with the closing safety. And if Book’s intention was to draw a defensive penalty, he got lucky, because that flag would be drawn only if the safety had any idea where the ball was, and if he knew that, this would have been Book’s third interception of the season.
“There was probably one (pass) that he would have liked back, the interference or the lack of an interference call there,” Kelly said. “That ball should not have been thrown in that situation.”
Book needed to recognize the bracketed coverage. Young never stood a solid chance at catching that pass, while the risk of a turnover was apparent. Oddly enough, such a reckless risk is uncharacteristic of Book. More often, his mistakes are akin to the second pass in the video clip.
Yes, it was a completion, but if Book had gotten that pass out ahead of fifth-year receiver Chris Finke, hitting him in stride, that may have been a touchdown. Instead, Finke had to put himself at risk to make the catch.
Not much more time needs to be spent on Book’s difficulties getting the ball downfield. It has been well-discussed, and until he proves his arm strength repeatedly, it will be doubted.
What has been more concerning for Book, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long has been Book’s skittishness, diminishing his working through progressions and spotting open receivers. His footwork, vision and decision-making have been lacking in 2019, even for just a 15-game starter at this point, as Kelly likes to point out when pondering such mishaps.
Showing progress in those regards against the Falcons may be a step Book was always expected to make considering the lack of quality in the opponent, but him doing so numerous times could be a precursor for what is to come.
Beginning with the obvious, a 34-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Chase Claypool, Book committed to the shot down the field. He set his feet and, for lack of a more apt phrase, let it rip. The throw, nonetheless, did not hit Claypool in stride, but Book needs to more often have faith in his playmakers to, well, make the play.
“We have a lot of great players and we want to get everyone in as much as we can, and it was great to see,” Book said. “Guys stepping up, making big plays, big chunk plays.”
Book’s 17-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble did not need to travel as far, although it traveled about 28 yards in the air with Book throwing from behind the line of scrimmage and Tremble catching it in the end zone. Again, Book simply set his feet and let it rip, benefited by a clear read on the play of tracking junior tight end Cole Kmet, attached on the right side of the line at the snap, and targeting either him or Tremble based on the safety’s coverage.
Book carried that comfort in his progressions from the Tremble touchdown, a quick two-read play, to his fifth and final touchdown pass when he worked through his reads, considered some of them again, and then found senior receiver Javon McKinley alone in the end zone. Book’s patience allowed McKinley the time to drift to a hole in the defense, which just happened to be on the wanted side of the goal line.
“Going through all my progressions, that’s really what I wanted to work on. First-, second- and third-reads,” Book said. “We have these designed plays, they’re going to work. I’ve just got to get through my progression and get the ball to the guys.”
A Pro Football Focus set of stats shown in a graphic during the broadcast illustrated how inefficient Book has been getting through his progressions this season. When he delivers the ball within 2.5 seconds or fewer of the snap, his numbers are stellar. On the 41.6 percent of snaps entering the Bowling Green game when Book held onto the ball longer than that, he was decidedly average. On some level, that is a flawed metric because holding onto the ball indicates the coverage is sturdy, but the flip side of that is the offensive line has given him time to make the right decision.
Using that time to find McKinley alone for a score was unexpected, unusual and a step in the right direction.
Back-shoulder throws do not necessitate as much time, but they do require the trust a la hitting Claypool deep and a level of timing innate to that trust. Book and McKinley do not have the routine down as well as Book and Miles Boykin did a year ago, but connecting on the route twice against the Falcons indicates it may be growing. For McKinley, as he alternates between inconsistent and emerging, the back-shoulder routes could become a confidence-building staple.
“You’re seeing a guy really who is this is his first year of playing,” Kelly said of McKinley after his five-catch, 104-yard showing. “I know he’s been in the program for a long time, but it’s been one of those slow starts for a guy, and I really think that he is going to continue to ascend in the program.”
This last play may look less consequential than all the previous. Notre Dame did not score, and Book hardly tested himself with the throw. Nonetheless, it may have been the most encouraging of Book’s 20 pass attempts last Saturday. He showed patience in the pocket, even got hit as he released the ball, but kept his feet steady and stuck to the plan his progressions necessitated.
The underneath route to Claypool is frequently open, and Book misses it because he looks to scramble instead of waiting the beat longer needed for Claypool to clear traffic.
Facing a defensive front in USC’s with 13 sacks in five games, maintaining that patience may be a challenge for Book, but just as he needs it when he sets his feet and lets it rip downfield, that calm is crucial to further success in all aspects of Long’s offensive scheme and replicating what was seen against Bowling Green.