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Thomas: Book and Notre Dame follow the 2015 Alabama blueprint

| Friday, October 30, 2020

Looking at the list of quarterbacks who have won a national championship recently, the list is impressive — to say the least. 

2016: Deshaun Watson (first round NFL Draft pick) 

2017: Jalen Hurts & Tua Tagovailoa (second and first round draft picks respectively) 

2018: Trevor Lawrence (Projected No. 1 overall pick in 2021) 

2019: Joe Burrow (No. 1 overall pick in 2020)

The quarterbacks who lead the nation’s top three teams are Lawrence, 2019 Heisman finalist Justin Fields, and Alabama’s Mac Jones, who boasts a passer rating of over 212 (for reference, Burrow’s was 202.0 in his runaway Heisman campaign). 

Looking at that list, it’s easy to despair about the relatively pedestrian numbers of Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book. With just 6 touchdown passes and a 143.5 passer rating through five games, Book has not blown anyone away. The most optimistic draft projections have Book going in the fifth or sixth round, while most trend towards NFL teams taking a seventh round flier, or signing the ND signal-caller as an undrafted free agent. It’s not exactly the pedigree of recent national championship winning QBs, and so the question has to be asked: Is Ian Book enough to push the Irish over the edge? 

While there’s plenty of doubters, the answer should be yes.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
Graduate student cornerback Ian Book looks on from the sidelines in Saturday’s 45-3 win over Pitt.

To examine this point, we’re going to go back to the quarterback who beat Deshaun Watson in his first national championship appearance: Jake Coker of the 2015 Alabama Crimson Tide. Comparing Coker and that 2015 Alabama team to Book and this 2020 Notre Dame squad actually brings about more similarities than one would think. Coker wasn’t asked to carry that Alabama squad. He didn’t have a 300-yard passing game in the regular season, he had inconsistencies and he posted just a 147.2 passer rating. Rather than rely on Coker, Alabama turned to their monster in the backfield in Derrick Henry, with Kenyan Drake offering a secondary rushing threat while contributing to the passing game out of the backfield.

While it would be rash to compare sophomore Kyren Williams to Derrick Henry, it’s pretty clear that Notre Dame is featuring a run-heavy offense for the first time in recent memory. They’re dominating time of possession, having held the ball for 37 and 41 minutes in their past two games. Williams is averaging 6.8 yards per touch, which is over a yard more than Henry’s 5.7 mark. The biggest difference between the lead backs (besides physical features) is workload — Henry averaged 27 touches per game and Williams has notched 20. Chris Tyree fills in a similar role as Drake did, although more in the rushing attack than in the passing game. In play styles, both 2015 Alabama and 2020 Notre Dame prioritize the run, with Alabama averaging 200 yards on the ground, and Notre Dame a touch over 230. Meanwhile, in the passing game, the Irish have notched 207 passing yards per game, about 20 less than the mark of the Crimson Tide five years ago. 

OK, but Alabama is Alabama, and they dominate everyone, right? Not so much — 2015 not only featured a rare regular season loss for the Tide, but also a couple of unusually close calls. After losing to Ole Miss, the Tide had a close call against a pedestrian and unranked Tennessee squad (19-14 win) and scored less than thirty points in four of their final eight games against FBS competition. They used strong defense and a clock-controlling offense to steadily pull away, frequently winning by scores like 27-14 (Arkansas), 29-13 (Auburn) and 29-15 (Florida). This team didn’t blow out opponents, winning just one regular season clash against a Power 5 opponent by more than 20 points. 

Sound familiar? 

The Fighting Irish have gotten a bad rap for not blowing teams out. They put some of those concerns to rest by dominating Pitt, but even still, the concerns about Ian Book and an offense that many perceive as not playoff worthy are voiced loudly and frequently. That Alabama offense averaged 35.1 points per game — good for 30th in the country. Thus far in 2020, the Irish are averaging 35.6, which ranks 29th. That 2015 Alabama team ended up winning the national championship over Clemson, powered by a defense that gave up 15.1 points per game (3rd) and an opportunistic offense that turned up the heat when needed. 

We haven’t seen what Notre Dame does when they need to rally against a truly elite opponent, but let’s stop pretending that the Irish need to be beating teams 73-7 to be considered a championship contender. Ian Book is not a quarterback that’s going to do that, and Notre Dame doesn’t run an offensive style conducive to such blowouts. In 2015, Jake Coker threw for more than 250 yards just once in the regular season. Book has already exceeded that clip twice. He’s also less mistake-prone than Coker, having tossed one interception in five games. Coker threw eight picks in his 2015 championship season. 

This isn’t to say that Notre Dame will for sure win out and claim a national championship. But let’s not let recent history twist the perception that teams have to have future NFL stars under center in order to win a title. Jake Coker went undrafted, appearing in a total of three preseason NFL games as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Cardinals. However, Alabama didn’t ask Jake Coker to be Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow. They asked him to be Jake Coker, and that was enough for the Tide to claim a title. 

So let’s stop asking Ian Book to be Burrow, or Jalen Hurts, or Tua. Let’s ask him to be Ian Book: a relatively consistent, gritty quarterback who can steer the Irish to victory far more often than not. Just because it’s not the standard formula does not mean Notre Dame isn’t putting together a championship recipe. It’s not unheard of, and it’s worked before — sit back, watch the Irish pound the rock, watch their defense dominate and enjoy the ride as Notre Dame embraces the Alabama grind en route to what they hope is a drought-snapping season.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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