Overreacting to one game, and making big decisions because of one loss is never a good way to run a football team. But last night’s 45-14 loss to Michigan should cause head coach Brian Kelly and his entire staff to do some serious soul searching.
A lot of questions must be asked, analyzed and ultimately, answered. Last night was not just one bad night, which happens to most teams from time to time. It was a trend. It was a trend from a program standpoint, and it was a trend from a quarterback standpoint.
There is no doubt that quarterback Ian Book was a driving force in Notre Dame’s playoff run last season. His 306.9 passing yards per game and 70.3-percent completion percentage in the regular season fueled a unit that averaged 35.8 offensive points per game in his eight regular season starts. Inserting him into the starting lineup was the right move, and it paid off …. last season.
But late in the season we saw a decline in play, with Book throwing four touchdowns against three interceptions in the final three games of the season, and his completion percentage dipped fourteen points during that stretch. Some wanted to attribute it to the injury he sustained against Northwestern, which caused him to miss the Florida State game.
The issue, however, is that trend has carried over into the 2019 season.
Overall, his numbers still look solid. Book has a 15-2 touchdown to interception ratio and he’s thrown for 1,492 yards in seven games this season. The problem is the majority of that damage has come in two games against non-Power 5 schools that currently combine for a 4-12 record. In fact, 10 of his 15 touchdown passes have come against New Mexico and Bowling Green, as has 41.6-percent of his passing yards.
Against Notre Dame’s five Power 5 opponents this season, Book is completing 55.9-percent of his passes and averaging just 174.2 passing yards per game and 204.2 yards of offense to go with 5.2 yards per play (pass attempts, rushes). Notre Dame is averaging just 24.8 offensive points per game and is just 3-2 in those contests.
In those five games, Book is averaging just 5.7 yards per pass attempt and 10.2 yards per completion. If your first response is to point to how wet it was last night against Michigan, that’s fair, but if you remove last night’s performance, Book is still averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt and 10.4 yards per completion against the other four Power 5 opponents.
For context purposes, those non-Michigan averages would rank the Notre Dame offense 106th nationally in yards per attempt and 117th in yards per completion. Those numbers are nowhere near good enough for an offense like the talent Notre Dame possesses.
At some point, the Irish coaches must ask a legitimate question of themselves. Do you keep waiting on Book to turn the corner, or do you accept that this is who he is and decide it’s time to give someone else a shot?
This is what they did last season, before the team lost a game, when it benched Brandon Wimbush despite his 12-3 record as a starter. Book is now 14-3 as the starter, and his numbers in recent games look very similar to Wimbush’s when he was benched.
In his last five regular season games against Power 5 opponents, Wimbush accounted for 188.0 passing yards per game (more than Book), averaged 255.6 yards of offense (more than Book), averaged 6.3 yards per play (more than Book) and the offense averaged just 24.4 points per game. Wimbush accounted for eight touchdowns while Book has had just seven.
The only thing Book has done better than Wimbush is complete passes at a higher rate and protect the ball, but Wimbush averaged 7.6 yards per pass attempt and 15.4 yards per completion, numbers that are far superior than Book.
Simply put, the play of the Notre Dame pass attack and the Notre Dame quarterback in 2019 has not been good enough for this team to reach its full potential. That was essentially the reason Kelly and Long decided to bench Wimbush for Book last season.
Sure, you could stick with Book and watch him shred a Virginia Tech defense that ranks 86th in scoring defense or a Duke defense that ranks 55th in scoring defense, or a Boston College defense that ranks 102nd in scoring defense, or a Stanford defense that ranks 69th in scoring defense, but we’ve seen what happens when Notre Dame plays top teams. They aren’t good enough on offense.
Say what you want about Wimbush, but during his 15-game starting career the Irish had four wins over opponents that finished ranked. The Irish beat No. 12 USC (49-14), No. 15 Michigan State (38-18) and No. 23 NC State (35-14) in 2017, and Wimbush led the Irish to a 24-17 victory over Michigan in 2018. Those four opponents combined to go 40-13 (.754 winning percentage).
In his 16 starts, Book has two wins over Top 25 opponents. The Irish beat No. 15 Syracuse (36-3) and No. 21 Northwestern (31-21). Those two opponents combined to go 19-8 (.703 winning percentage).
Wimbush also had poor performances against ranked opponents like Georgia, Miami and Stanford, which ultimately led to him not getting the job done and getting replaced. At some point, Book needs to be held to the same standard and the Irish coaches must find out if backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec is, or is not, capable of handling the duties as the starting quarterback.
Make no mistake, last night’s performance is not, at all, only on Ian Book. He was just one of many players that failed to perform to the standard of a championship caliber football team. But last night was the culmination of a trend that has been in the making going back to November of last season, and last night was rock bottom.