Over the last two games, one thing remains abundantly clear for this Notre Dame team: the defense is leaps and bounds ahead of the offense. Last week against Virginia, you could argue that the defense accounted for 28 of Notre Dame’s 35 points with their ability to create turnovers and win the field position battle. Notre Dame’s stellar defensive line, led by Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, forced three fumbles. Their ball-hawking defensive backs, led by All-American Alohi Gilman and stud freshman Kyle Hamilton, had two interceptions. It was one heck of a display for the second consecutive week by this Notre Dame defense. Holding future NFL QB Jake Fromm and his dynamic Bulldog offense to 23 points is no easy feat, either. I was under the impression that ND had the defense to win a national title last year, but the offense was nowhere near that level. That turned out to be true against Clemson. Unfortunately, right now, I see no difference in this year’s team.
Speaking of the offense, the run game actually looked formidable. I think a lot of that was due to the fact Virginia was gassed in the second half, but nonetheless, it’s still a positive sign. When Tony Jones Jr. can get past the line of scrimmage and into the second level, that’s where he becomes dangerous, as he has a second gear that other ND backs do not possess. The passing attack, however, was brutal. I thought Michael Young’s return would provide a spark in explosiveness, but I did not see that. Hopefully that changes as he becomes 100% and develops timing with Book. After the Georgia game, I pinned most of the blame for the offense’s struggles on the lack of speed at the WR position. I even wrote a recap article about it last week.
However, now I think there is equal blame between the wideouts and Book. Being at the game allows you to see a lot more of the field than on TV, and Book had open receivers all game long against Virginia that he did not see. Also, he’s much more hesitant when making decisions than he was a year ago, and I still don’t understand why. On top of that, I didn’t see him look off one safety all game. He has developed a little bit of tunnel vision on his first read, which is a big issue. Although Virginia QB Bryce Perkins had two interceptions in the second half, he looked much better than Book after the first two quarters of play.
What’s really concerning is that it seems defenses know how to stop Book after a year of analyzing tape on him. Book does not have a strong arm, so defenses are playing soft, man-to-man, cloud coverage on the field side wideout (i.e. Michael Young). If Book had the arm strength to take advantage of this soft coverage, he would have hit Young relentlessly on the quick ten-yard hitch or dig routes. But he can’t. This allows opposing defenses to put more defensive personnel in the middle of the field to cover Cole Kmet or on the short side of the field to cover Chase Claypool. It’s a very smart gameplan that really limits ND’s ability to move the ball, and I’m not sure Ian Book has the physical ability to beat it. I think offensive coordinator Chip Long knows of Book’s deficiencies, which is why Book barely even looked at Young when this coverage was presented. The only alternative way to beat this coverage is to get the ball to your playmaking wideouts in the middle of the field as quickly as possible. However, that’s when the other weakness of this offense comes into play. The wideouts do not have NFL speed and struggle to create separation from defensive backs, even in tight man coverage. Chris Finke is a great leader and captain for this team, but he has really struggled this season. He simply cannot get open, and although Book does deserve equal blame, a lot of the times he’s dancing in the pocket is simply because nobody is open. Claypool is a stud, but he’s a possession wideout. He does not have breakaway speed. Similarly, Cole Kmet is a very good player but not explosive enough to run by defensive backs. This is why Michael Young is so important for this offense, as he’s more explosive. He and Book need to develop timing for this offense to reach the next level.
While I do not think Book deserves as much blame as he has received, I am completely okay with being highly critical of his play thus far this year. In fact, if you asked Ian yourself, I’m sure he would be critical of himself. But Irish fans who are already advocating for redshirt freshman Phil Jurkovec to start over him need to relax. If Jurkovec was impressive during fall camp and turned heads like he was supposed to, that’d be one thing. But he didn’t. It was a well-known fact after camp that he struggled mightily and lost all his confidence in his throwing ability. The game appeared to be too fast for him and five weeks of practice doesn’t magically change that. I mean, it was reported that he couldn’t even throw the ball accurately inside ten yards. If the goal is to run a west coast style offense featuring quick, short-yardage throws, how in the world would Jurkovec be successful? Book has his limitations, but he is clearly the best option at QB. To be honest, if he were to go down (knock on wood), the Irish would be lucky to win eight games this year.
The fact of the matter is that ND has as good of a defense as any team in the country, but the offense currently has serious limitations that need to be addressed. I was at the game on Saturday, and the two sides of the ball looked like different teams. The defense features players with the size and speed on the perimeter who will play on Sundays in the near future, while the offense, with the exception of Chase Claypool, does not. If Notre Dame truly wants to compete with Alabama and Clemson, they need an upgrade at the skill positions. This may seem a bit harsh, but right now, it’s the truth. However, that does not mean Ian Book and co. can’t improve as the season progresses, finish 11-1, and look like a completely different offense when it matters most. Time will tell.
Featured Photo: John Bazemore/The Associated Press