As will become the norm in this space from now on, I’ll start by talking about the performance of the coordinator. Much like the offense as a whole, Chip Long was a little bit all over the place in terms of what he wanted his offense to be against a pretty good Virginia defense. It never felt like he was trying to establish anything, he’d dabble in the run game, then go to the pass game, then suddenly went heavy run at the end, which was a great decision obviously, but an identity was nowhere to be found.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of that has to do with how his quarterback is performing than anything else. When watching the game back, there are a lot of plays left on the field, and play calls like the two screen plays that fell incomplete certainly looked to be perfect calls at the ideal times for big gains, but poor execution doomed both.
In the end, a meh performance from the quarterback generally leads to what feels like a meh performance from the offense as a whole, which gives people sour feelings in general. I do think Long is calling a better game than we all think, but offensive execution falls under his jurisdiction, so he gets dinged for it. Overall, I’m giving Long a B-, with a good job by him ending the game with Tony Jones and the offensive line.
Naturally, there has been a resurgence in the “second-year regression” talk with the way Ian Book has performed this season. In my opinion, it’s less regression and merely a lack of growth. The mistakes he’s made this year–the lack of pocket awareness, pulling the ball too soon, not seeing open receivers–are the same mistakes he made last year. He just hasn’t grown.
The most surprising part of this is the inability to identify where the ball should go on a play to play basis. Unlike arm strength or accuracy, which are mostly un-coachable, knowing where the ball needs to be distributed on a play to play basis is very much coachable and needs to be where Book is excelling. Through four games, he is not.
He missed a wide open Cole Kmet for a touchdown on the opening drive, later missed an open Chase Claypool on a post route (twice) that are likely touchdowns, and didn’t see Claypool crossing right in front of him on a third-down play where he left a clean pocket and ran into a sack. I’ll break all of this down further later in the week, but it’s been a theme throughout the season. The good news is the plays are there to be made; Book just needs to identify them. The offense has an extra level to get to, and they need their quarterback to take them there.
Aside from how well Tony Jones Jr. played, C’Bo Flemister also came in and showed some vision, some hard running, a little bit of burst, and a smidge of wiggle. Nice to see from him in such an important game. They get the minus grade because Avery Davis dropped a screen pass that would have gone for a huge gain and those are misses they cannot have. Getting hard to justify the work he gets when Flemister has looked better than him this year and has been a running back for a lot longer. C’Bo probably should be passing him on the depth chart.
Ok, to the senior running back Jones Jr. Obviously, a very strong performance in the running game and as a pass blocker. He looked as good as he ever has, even better than he did against Louisville honestly, running well inside and getting downhill and into the secondary on a couple of runs, including his 30-yard touchdown run. The key to his game is decisiveness; he’s not fast or explosive enough to be choosy in the hole. He needs to see his cut and hit it, and when he does that he can be effective. We saw all of that in 4th quarter this week, just when the offense needed it, and hopefully with Jafar Armstrong’s pending return, we’ll see fresh legs the rest of the season.
Claypool had a monster game out there for him had Book been more willing to give him chances, even with the sore ankle he suffered during the game. He continues to look fantastic this season. The same is true of Cole Kmet, who caught a long ball from Book, made a diving 3rd down catch, and was very good as a blocker, making a key block to break Jones Jr. loose on his third touchdown run. He is rounding into form very well and is every bit the weapon we thought he could be.
Michael Young made his return and looked as he always has. He made a critical third-down catch along the sideline at the sticks, a play we barely saw because NBC was engaged in their Sky Cam shenanigans. We should look forward to him being a more significant part of the offense in the coming weeks.
Ok, so Chris Finke. I’m still of the opinion that he ought to not lose his starting position; he was a very key player for them last season and has performed at very high levels. This isn’t even about the captain thing. The guy has played well for Notre Dame. That said, Lawrence Keys has objectively outplayed him this season, and he needs to see more snaps than he has so far this year. Finke has made the same type of mistakes Book has, but the difference between Book and Finke is it’s much easier to give another receiver more snaps than the quarterback.
It’s a roller coaster with these guys, week to week, and even quarter to quarter. The way they moved the line of scrimmage in that fourth quarter was downright sexy, with Jones getting five yards downfield before being engaged by the defense. And yet the first three quarters were pretty meh, with the exception of much better short-yardage performance. They also looked fine as pass blockers against a team that sent a ton of pressure and entered the game with 20 sacks on the season. It’s often hard to judge how well they are doing because Book runs into pressure so often or acts as though there is pressure when there isn’t.
The running game has the chance to take more steps forward with Jahmir Smith getting healthier, improved play from C’Bo Flemister, and the highly anticipated return of Jafar Armstrong.
It’d have been an A, but can we cut down on the godforsaken false starts? Sheesh.