Through three games last year, the Irish offense was stagnant. With a powerful defense, Brian Kelly knew his team had a chance to be great, but he needed to ignite the offense. So he made the bold move of benching Brandon Wimbush in favor of Ian Book. The move worked out as Notre Dame went to the playoffs for the first time. A year later, Kelly might be facing a similar decision this week after another underwhelming performance from the Irish offense in Notre Dame’s embarrassing 45-14 loss to Michigan.
The natural, knee-jerk answer here is clearly, “yes.” Make the change and see if it can ignite the offense. It might not be that simple, though. While the Ian Book wasn’t good by any means Saturday night, he wasn’t the only problem against Michigan. You don’t get blown out of the water just because your quarterback has a bad night. Notre Dame was terrible in every aspect of the game – sidelines included. Maybe sidelines especially.
Benching Book right now makes the senior a scapegoat for a team that is underachieving in more areas than just at quarterback. As Greg pointed out on Sunday, Notre Dame’s captains have almost all regressed this year – not only Ian Book. At the same time, it has been a while since we’ve seen the same Ian Book that we saw against Wake Forest last September that looked like a revelation for this offense.
Now that said, Kelly needs to do something to jump-start this offense, and his options are limited with Virginia Tech coming into town this weekend. The return of Jafar Armstrong, which was thought to be the spark for this offense, hasn’t done anything to improve Notre Dame’s offensive output. There are no young receivers or running backs that haven’t played yet to throw out there.
Kelly did insert Jurkovec Saturday night once the game was entirely out of hand, but he was quick to tell the media in the immediate aftermath of the bloodbath that Jurkovec’s appearance was only because the game was decided by that point. He wasn’t benching Book. In limited action, Jurkovec led Notre Dame on their best drive of the game.
When Kelly benched Wimbush last year in favor of Book, he didn’t announce it during any of his media appearances leading up to the game, and when specifically asked about it by the media the Thursday before the game, Kelly was coy. So even if he is considering making a switch, we probably won’t know about it until around kick-off.
When Wimbush got benched, the Irish were 3-0, including a win over Michigan at the time and still very much alive in the playoff discussion. At 5-2 and coming off as lopsided of a loss as any Brian Kelly coached team at Notre Dame, no one should be surprised if Kelly starts thinking about inserting his sophomore quarterback.
If Book just had a bad night against the Wolverines, no one would even be contemplating this at this point. However, Book has been trending down since the end of last season once teams got a decent amount of film on him. Brian Kelly, Chip Long, and Book haven’t been able to counteract the adjustments defenses have made. Pitt created the blueprint, and the Irish offensive brain trust hasn’t had an answer.
In five games against Power 5 opponents this season, Book has thrown just five touchdowns. That level of production is not going to lead a team to a playoff run. The last time we saw him at the top of his game was against Northwestern last November in the game that he got hurt. Against a good Wildcats team, Book completed 64.7% of his passes for 343 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. He hasn’t had a game against a Power 5 team since then with at least two TDs and no interceptions.
Virginia Tech is ranked 65th in the country in pass defense efficiency. You can look at that in two ways here: 1) maybe it’s a good weekend to get Ian Book going again or 2) if you’re thinking about making a change, it could be a good time to do it. Notre Dame won’t face another defense this season that ranks higher than 31st in the country in pass defense efficiency as of today. And that team is Navy.
- Virginia Tech: 65th
- Duke: 42nd
- Navy: 31st
- Boston College: 114th
- Stanford: 108
By the way, the two non-Power 5 schools Notre Dame faced that they threw all over are currently among the worst pass defenses in the country. Bowling Green ranks #129 and New Mexico #126.
With the Playoffs entirely out the window following Saturday night’s debacle, Notre Dame should be playing for the future with an eye on making another run in 2020. They will have the personnel throughout the roster capable of making a run next year, but there are still big questions about the quarterback position in 2020 and beyond.
We still don’t know what Notre Dame has in Phil Jurkovec, but after 17 starts for Ian Book, we have a pretty good idea of what the Irish have. Book can be extremely accurate in the short passing game, but he’s struggled in the intermediate to long game. The long ball is mostly not even an option for Notre Dame right now. As a result, good defenses are stacking the box and daring Notre Dame to beat them deep. They haven’t been able to when they’ve faced good defenses this season.
Is Jurkovec the answer? I don’t know. I do know that Notre Dame has to do something to jump-start this offense because it’s been stuck in neutral for almost a year now. At a minimum, Notre Dame should be giving Jurkovec more snaps throughout games, though, since they have nothing left to lose. Brian Kelly has a history of making quarterback changes throughout his tenure. Expect to hear a lot of chatter suggesting he needs to make another one this week.
The real underlying question in all of this, too, is whether or not the sidelines is where Brian Kelly should be looking. Chip Long has had his moments as the offensive coordinator for the Irish, and Nick Saban has called him the last two off-seasons so clearly Long is well regarded. This is the second quarterback in a row though that Long hasn’t been able to help scheme around deficiencies to execute his offense.
Kelly isn’t going to make a change at offensive coordinator mid-season though, so if there is anything major he may do to shake up the offense, it’s probably at quarterback.