Book beginning to click with receivers just in time
Aidan Thomas | Monday, October 26, 2020
The passing game has been a much maligned part of the Notre Dame football roster this season. Entering their clash with Pitt, the No. 3 Irish were averaging just 178 yards per game through the air, having leaned heavily on a dynamic running game to start their season with an unblemished 4-0 record. The frustrations certainly hit a new level last weekend, as Notre Dame struggled to do much against a porous Louisville defense, notching just 12 points in an ugly 12-7 win.
“Even last Saturday night, we were hanging out after the game, and I could just see the frustration on his face,” graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek said of fifth-year starting quarterback Ian Book. “This week he came in, just locked in every single day.”
Whatever Ian Book did differently this past weekend worked well against Pitt, whom he diced for 312 yards and three touchdowns in just under three quarters of action. Although he was just 16 for 30, Book completed a number of downfield passes, including a 73-yard scoring strike to Skowronek. The aerial attack had been a weak spot, particularly downfield, so seeing Book make those throws was extremely satisfying for Irish fans. The performance was needed, as Notre Dame couldn’t do much on the ground against Pitt’s top-ranked rushing defense, and the Irish finally displayed a versatile offense that could win in different ways.
Despite passing the ball far more than in previous contests, Notre Dame still dominated the time of possession, notching a season-high 41 minutes of possession time. With the unfortunate news that junior wide receiver Kevin Austin had re-injured his foot, ending his season once more, it’s become even more pivotal that this oft-criticized group of receivers step up in his absence. Skowronek did so on Saturday, reeling in a pair of touchdown passes for a combined 107 yards.
Graduate student Javon McKinley also notched a pair of catches for 50 yards, one week after an extremely disappointing effort against Louisville, in which he caught just one of seven targets. Head coach Brian Kelly discussed the importance of every receiver stepping up
“We’re going to need to continue to see that from [Skowronek] and McKinley,” Kelly said. “We’re going to need to see it from all our wide receivers”.
Another encouraging trend on Saturday was Notre Dame sticking to the passing game, even with the game well in hand. They understand the importance of having an offense clicking on every level, and they know exactly what team is walking into Notre Dame SKyrentadium on Nov. 7. At the risk of looking ahead, Brian Kelly and the Irish know exactly what task looms large, and what is needed on both sides of the ball. And given the struggles moving the ball through the air, there was a definitive game plan entering Heinz Field on Saturday.
“There’s this understanding with this group that everything they do now has bearings on who we are as a football team later in the season,” Kelly said. “We are looking ahead a little bit. We needed to get this football team to understand that they are really good.”
Inside the locker room, there was never any real doubt between Book and the receivers on what the offense could accomplish. In a year when he lost his top three targets in the receiving game, Book has found a connection with the former Northwestern receiver in Skowronek, who praised Book effusively after the blowout victory.
“He’s just so accurate. So it was easy for me. I just had to get open. He’s going to put the ball on me,” Skowronek said. “When we first started throwing together, we just clicked. I love him as a quarterback, and I think he’s a damn good football player.”
In the past three games, there have been two breakout games for Notre Dame receivers. Javon McKinley also notched 107 yards against Florida State, and Skowronek came through in a big way, after making his first catches for the blue and gold last weekend against Louisville. Expect both of those players to complement each other in what is quickly becoming a very versatile offense for the Irish, with sophomore running back Kyren Williams catching passes out of the backfield, speedster junior receiver Braden Lenzy stretching the field (when he’s healthy) and freshman tight end Michael Mayer providing a big and imposing target.
Skowronek spoke on the versatility and depth present in the pass-catching corps.
“[Opposing defenses] can’t really single out one guy to stop because there’s guys all over the field,” he said. “You look at Kyren, and he’s going crazy as a receiving back. Michael Mayer is really stepping up big, and Brock Wright, Tommy Tremble, and then obviously the rest of the receivers as well. So to not have just one guy that defenses focus on, I think that is huge for our offense.”
This is an entirely new-look Irish offense, despite being in their third year with Book under center. Not only do they lean on the ground game more significantly, but this isn’t a passing attack similar to ones of years past. Irish fans are used to seeing a big No. 1 receiver like Chase Claypool or Miles Boykin, or even Will Fuller, as a clear top pass-catching threat. This year, through five games, it’s becoming more apparent that there may not be one clear-cut top threat for the Irish. Rather, they have five or six, and each of them is a threat to break out at any given moment. Combine that with a quarterback who, while he doesn’t post the most gaudy statistics, is 25-3 under center as a starter, and the formula for a lethal passing game is there.
Skowronek affirmed this sentiment, saying, “I can’t wait to play with [Book] moving forward. He’s a hell of a football player, and he’s a winner.”