Rewatch Lessons: Notre Dame’s Passing Game Evolving, But Had Some Moments
A 52-0 dusting of overmatched South Florida will have no bearing on Notre Dame’s ACC title chase or boost its College Football Playoff resume. If the Irish reach those heights, this game won’t be pointed to as their arrival as a national contender.
We can glean plenty from it, though. Notre Dame was without three defensive starters and pitched a shutout anyway. A dominant 281-yard rushing day is encouraging, if not indicative.
Here are some observations, thoughts, musings, stats and more after rewatching the game … er, the first two-plus quarters.
Finding Something Comfortable
Through two games, Notre Dame’s aerial attack is a long way from being reliable enough to win a game if asked. Its receivers have 11 combined receptions and 19 targets through two games. Ian Book has completed only two throws of 15-plus yards from the pocket, per Sports Info Solutions’ data.
Saturday at least delivered a return to more frequent play action throws, which Book has executed well his entire career. Notre Dame called six of them the prior week against Duke. The first play against USF was a play action 25-yard gain to tight end Tommy Tremble, the first of nine such calls. He completed a 22-yard pass to Braden Lenzy off play action on the next series.
Book is 10-of-13 (76.9 percent) for 159 yards on play action passes. He’s 21-of-37 (56.8 percent for 247 yards on all other throws. It’s a small sample, but only seven FBS quarterbacks have a higher difference in completion rate. Notre Dame is searching for something to help its downfield attack, and right now, play action looks like the most viable solution.
Pocket Presence Strong
Book was pressured just four times, per Pro Football Focus. Only half of the Bulls’ blitzes resulted in pressure, a testament to the blocking he received, and Book was 5-for-8 passing against the blitz for 67 yards. He could have read the Sunday paper back there.
Still, those numbers are worth highlighting because inventing pressure has been a bugaboo with him. It wasn’t evident Saturday. He stayed in the pocket, improvised only when needed and didn’t hurry his reads. His 4-yard touchdown scramble came only after everything was covered. The 22-yard throw to Lenzy was a dime on a rollout.
Book may never have an easier time doing it. But as the season opener revealed, making the layups is his task as much as anything else. Low bar for a three-year starter? Sure. But Notre Dame can’t think like that. Book is their guy, and the Irish need him to be good enough to deliver wins himself. He won’t get there without hitting the easy ones more often.
Book left a couple layups out there, particularly a touchdown to Joe Wilkins Jr., but any skittishness was not detectable. That’s good.
Tight End Fanfare
Brian Kelly promised Notre Dame would use 13 personnel more often, and not just in goal-line spots. It didn’t happen against Duke. One week later, three tight ends started and trotted out there for the game’s first play. Tremble (45), Brock Wright (33) and Michael Mayer (26) each played at least 25 snaps. Notre Dame was in 11 personnel for just one more snap than it was in 13.
The 13 usage may as well have been higher. I counted at least five occasions where 6-4 wide receiver Javon McKinley aligned near the end of the offensive line, a de facto tight end, and was a critical component of several running plays. He made 12 personnel 13 and 13 into 14. C’Bo Flemister’s 26-yard touchdown run was basically 14 personnel, and he cut behind a McKinley block.
The usage fit with the plan to hammer USF on the ground. Notre Dame sure did that, and the tight ends were no small reason why. Tremble also caught three passes for 60 yards and is Notre Dame’s leading receiver so far. We’ll learn soon enough if the tight end uptick was game plan-oriented or a go-to look.
Wright and McKinley (39 snaps) are standout run blockers. Thing is, when they’re on the field together, Notre Dame isn’t getting much receiving production from either spot. They have five combined targets this year, all against USF, with one catch. They have run 63 combined routes this year and played 165 combined snaps, per PFF.
For an offense that needs receiving playmakers, having two skill position spots often occupied by players who aren’t asked to provide much in that area feels redundant. Notre Dame isn’t short on receivers and tight ends who can run block.
Wright’s lone target fell between him in the flat and running back Chris Tyree on a wheel route near the goal line, one of Book’s few hurried throws. McKinley’s four targets: a 7-yard completion, a fade in the end zone where he caught the ball barely out of bounds, a throw Book left behind him on an in-cut and a miscommunication on a shot play. He and Book have some gelling to do.
Michael Mayer Still Helped
The freshman caught only one pass, on the first drive, but he was not otherwise absent. USF just wanted to deny him the ball. Twice in the red zone, Book appeared to look Mayer’s way first, but noticed he was covered and went elsewhere. One of those instances was Book’s first rushing touchdown.
Chris Tyree … Whew
The freshmen running back had two more snaps than a week ago and turned them into eight carries for 65 yards and a touchdown. He displayed make-you-miss ability Notre Dame didn’t have last year — one reason he and Kyren Williams are atop the depth chart.
On two of Tyree’s biggest gains, an unblocked defender awaited him near the line of scrimmage in his running lane. Tyree went right at him anyway, trusting the blocking and his own ability to make the man miss. Each time, he did, showcasing the straight-line speed and toughness along with it. Both his pass-protection assignments were executed well too.
Through two games, short-yardage has been a strength. Notre Dame has converted 80 percent of its third and fourth down with 3 or fewer yards to gain, all on run plays. That’s up from 62.2 percent last year, which ranked 106th nationally. Before dismissing it due to the competition, consider the Irish went 5-for-9 in those spots against New Mexico last year with the same offensive line.
The tight ends deserve some credit too. Tremble’s blocking was a highlight. The sole third down the starters failed to convert was a run that did not travel in his direction.
Foskey’s Increased Load
Sophomore defensive end Isaiah Foskey played 33 snaps, up from 14 a week ago. He didn’t flash quite as often, but he halted a USF drive inside Notre Dame’s 40 by stopping a fake punt. USF shifted from punt formation into an offensive one, with wide receiver Jahquez Evans taking the snap.
USF motioned one player away from the eventual play side, hoping to draw some eyes, but the unblocked Foskey didn’t take the bait and had the speed to run with a receiver and bring him down. If teams are leaving him unblocked to test his discipline, it’s not working.
Buck Job’s New Contender
Sophomore Jack Kiser, a scout team player as recently as Wednesday, slid into the lineup at buck linebacker and had a team-high eight tackles to go with four individual defensive wins. It was a last-minute insertion, but felt like the opposite – and created a quandary at buck to address whenever Shayne Simon and Marist Liufau come back.
It’s worth noting Kiser didn’t beat out those two, who were unavailable against USF. And yes, it was USF. Another performance anywhere near this one, though, and he will be difficult to pull out of the lineup. The position isn’t exactly full of proven guys. Notre Dame needs an impact player
Kiser was instinctive, disciplined and assignment-sound. He saw time in sub-packages too, an indication the coaches might see some situational pass-rush or coverage upside in him.
Elsewhere At Linebacker
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had a quiet day. He played 23 snaps, a bit less than some of the other starters, and was not in on some third downs. He made one tackle. USF avoided running at him or throwing at him when it could.
Owusu-Koramoah blew up an option play when he shot past a blocker and disrupted the timing of the quarterback’s read, making him dawdle laterally for someone else to tackle. That was all. It'd be foolish to read anything deep into his outing.
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