I’ve found one of the tougher things for fans to wrap their minds around is how they feel things ought to be versus the way things are. This was a phenomenon surrounding the analysis of the football team last season, with respect to the Notre Dame running game. On paper, the running game should have been consistently good every week. They had highly recruited players, with lots of experience, on the offensive line, and what most considered to be capable running backs.
For much of the season though, the running game was very much hit and miss, marred by inconsistency. They had some very good performances: 42 for 230 in the opener, 48 for 308 against USC, and 42 for 288 against Duke. But, they also had some total stinkers: 14 for 46 against Georgia, 31 for 47 against Michigan.
I written and said a few times since last season ended that what the running game needed was for each position group to be a little bit better; the backs needed better blocking from the line to compliment their abilities, the line needed better backs to take advantage of the holes they were creating. As we have seen so far this season, that dynamic and the ability for the line and the backs to compliment each other, can produce great results.
It looks like, so far, the 2020 passing attack is suffering from the same issues the running game did last season. Notre Dame has a 5th year senior in Ian Book, who just through experience should be able to lift up his receiving corps. And he’s got, on paper, some talented and experienced options to throw to, especially at tight end. And while there has been plenty of success throwing to the tight ends, the receivers have yet to produce the way they need to for the offense to reach it’s full height. Saturday, though, was a significant step in the right direction.
Confident Ian Book
Rather than wax on how Ian Book should look as a 5th year senior quarterback, it’s more important to focus on how he has looked, and where this needs to go. In Notre Dame’s first two contests, Book was unsure of himself in the pocket, bailing out when he didn’t need to, and uncomfortable scanning the field. These are all bad things for a passing game, obviously.
Following the three week break due to the teams COVID outbreak, it was reasonable to think we might see more of the same from the passing attack. However, what we did see was the best version of Ian Book so far this season. He was much more comfortable in the pocket, he was getting the ball out on time and to the correct players, and his confidence level was way up, as evidenced by his terrific throw to tight end Michael Mayer in the second quarter, threading the ball over and between defenders for a nice gain.
That’s an example of Book making a play for one of his teammates, giving Mayer a chance when Book might have otherwise opted against taking a chance on this throw. We often talk about taking chances in relation to the deep ball, but this is a situation where Book did take a chance and it paid off.
Improvements At Receiver
Some of the uptick in the passing game has been simply getting the best talent onto the field, something we saw with the addition of Braden Lenzy into the lineup. But, it also has come from Javon McKinley becoming more of an option at receiver, a very welcome development because of McKinley’s ability as a blocker. It’s one thing for McKinley to be out there as a receiver whose main job is in the run game, it’s another when McKinley is a real threat in the passing game.
The best example of this was the go route McKinley ran at the end of the first quarter, after Florida State had taken a 17-14 lead. Later in the game we saw McKinley catch a seam pass on something of a back shoulder throw, and pass down the sideline on a fake bubble screen action. We’ve seen McKinley use his size on back shoulders before.
What we have not seen though, is McKinley win off the line of scrimmage, accelerate past the defensive back to create separation, and run under a deep pass. This represents an advancement in his game, and Ian Book was able to take full advantage with a terrific pass between defenders and the team was off on a touchdown drive to re-take the lead.
More Help Coming
A lot has been made about the insertion of Kevin Austin into the offense (he only played three snaps on Saturday) and I guess any contribution he might make is theoretical, but I have to believe the things people have been saying for the better part of two seasons is at least somewhat accurate and Austin will help this team a lot at receiver. We saw the slightest glimpse of what he can do in the third quarter when he was inserted on 3rd and five and ran a sweet in-route that Book could have connected with him on.
A big part of the passing game getting better is the better players being involved in it. I know this is a very obvious thing, but obvious things are often true, and the insertion of Austin, Lenzy healing, and McKinley taking strides offer up some hope for the passing game to continue taking steps forward.