Things We Learned: D’s adjustments, ground game buy time for Notre Dame’s passing relationships

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ian Book stood alone to start Notre Dame’s season, the only captain representing the Irish at the coin toss. And the fifth-year quarterback stood alone at the end of No. 10 Notre Dame’s 27-13 win against Duke, partaking in a socially-distanced rendition of the “Alma Mater.”

No matter how you looked at it, the Irish season opener was marked by the coronavirus pandemic, including while the clock ran, particularly whenever Book was behind center. Maybe that would have been less noticeable if his expected targets had been available, but a broken foot has sidelined junior receiver Kevin Austin for more than a month, a balky hamstring pulled up graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek in the first half and junior receiver Braden Lenzy was missing from action, a situation that more and more sounds like another hamstring issue.

Without them, Book had to look for names best known for practice nicks limiting game showings, a dropped pass in last year’s season opener and high-school film. These were not Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet and Chris Finke. They were not even Austin, Skowronek and Lenzy.

“You have to understand — no spring ball, and let me just go over how many new players that [Book] is blending into this offense,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “Whether it’s (freshman tight end) Mike Mayer, (junior tight end) Tommy Tremble getting a bigger role, Joe Wilkins, Javon McKinley, Lawrence Keys, all the backs. Ian Book has got a whole new offensive group of skill players around him, and he’s still working through that process. So it’s not in a situation where he knows exactly where they are going to be.”

Of the seven players Book completed a pass to Saturday, three had never caught a collegiate pass before, while the other four combined for 52 catches last season. Notre Dame’s leading receiver against the Blue Devils, sophomore running back Kyren Williams with two catches for 93 yards, saw his 2019 playing time quickly and harshly truncated after dropping a checkdown at Louisville.

In any other year, Book would have had time to work with both the presumed starters and the reserves. But, well, you know.

“Missing spring practice and then being delayed a few times in practice in fall camp, those are important reps that you wish you had,” Book said after throwing for 263 yards and a touchdown on 19-of-31 passing. “Every day counts, especially with quarterback-receiver timing. It’s huge.

“Chemistry is everything. It’s trust. When you miss those days, you lose them. I was extremely excited with the way guys wanted to put in work when we were together. I feel like we are working with the chemistry every day and I am a lot more comfortable with it.”

The ACC did the Irish a few favors this year, and vice versa, but one of the more underrated ones was building a gradual runway into the season. Book & Co., be it with the injury-ridden or the emerging-in-their-place corps, should have at least four weeks before facing a genuine challenge, if not longer given how Florida State failed to show up against Georgia Tech this weekend. That chemistry should not be necessary immediately.

Of course, against South Florida next week (2:30 ET; USA), Notre Dame would rather Book connect with a receiver before the final minute of the second half, no matter how well Tremble (five catches, 38 yards) is playing. In that final second-quarter minute against the Blue Devils, junior receiver Joe Wilkins (four catches, 44 yards) became Book’s unexpected reliable option, catching three passes for a quick 37 yards to get the Irish into field-goal range.

“We’ve always felt like when Joe gets his opportunity, he was talented enough to make some plays, and it’s just fun to watch him make some plays,” Kelly said. “I mentioned him in our postgame talk. There’s a lot of players that just needed an opportunity. He was stuck behind some really good players.”

Pending Skowronek’s hamstring — “not severe but enough that he couldn’t play at 100 percent” — Wilkins might be back on the second-string in a week, but the larger point stands: Book needs time with all these players if Notre Dame is to move consistently as it began to in the second half.

“Obviously I had a little bit of a slow start, but the team carried me for a little bit and I got back to where I wanted to be,” Book said. “The receivers did an unbelievable job making plays for me.”

Until the slow start of a season does not cameo as the slow start of a game, the Irish may be able to get by thanks to finding the necessary complementary pieces to an experienced offensive line. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees certainly seemed to think so given how he leaned into the ground game in the second half.

First half: 18 pass attempts, 17 rush attempts for 44 yards.
Second half: 13 pass attempts, 25 rush attempts for 134 yards.

Williams took seven carries in the second half for 73 yards while freshman running back Chris Tyree added five for 26. They became the offense’s engine as it rattled off 17 second-half points in the relatively low-scoring affair.

“The running backs, that’s where I was extremely impressed,” Book said. “With some young guys in there for the first time, when they play like that, it’s huge, helps open up the pass for us and just helps us get into a groove as an offense.”

Combining that effectiveness with what appears to be a vintage Clark Lea defense will give Notre Dame a high floor, so to speak. 

For the record, the operating definition of a “vintage Clark Lea defense” hinges on a defensive line rotation showcasing line games designed by defensive line coach Mike Elston and featuring a Rover in senior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah who somehow appears to be everywhere. It is the kind of malleable unit that can hold a David Cutcliffe offense to 88 second-half yards and 3.52 yards per play after halftime and 75 rushing yards on the afternoon.

By no means was the Irish defense a weakness in the first half, but the nature of a season opener and the inherent lack of film ahead of time can put an even greater priority on adjustments. It is no coincidence adjustments have long been a Lea speciality.

“We prepared all week for a certain type of offense, but Duke came out with something different that we didn’t really expect,” Owusu-Koramoah said after finishing with nine tackles, including two for loss and a forced fumble. “… With the adjustments that we made, I think that was the best aspect of playing in our defense today.”

Those adjustments give Notre Dame some time to figure out the rest, to find the chemistry between a third-year starting quarterback and his neophyte receivers. Developing those relationships will determine how high the Irish ceiling is in this chaotic year. Book may still be standing alone at the end of it, but at least that thought would be more literal than figurative.