SOUTH BEND — Before the season, Ian Book was looked by some as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. He had a strong 2018 campaign, leading Notre Dame to its first College Football Playoff appearance. Expectations were high not only for Book, but the Fighting Irish as a whole.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Book has not quite lived up to those expectations. Although he’s on pace to surpass last year’s totals in passing yards and touchdowns, his completion percentage is down 10 percent from a season ago. Book’s lack of pocket awareness at times was an issue that hindered the redshirt junior last year, and it appears to have stayed with him this season.
The offense, overall, is seeing similar struggles this year. If you take away the 66 and 52 points scored on New Mexico and Bowling Green, respectively, the Irish are left with a 19 points-per-game average against the Power-5 teams on their schedule. On the flip side, Notre Dame is giving up 25 points-per-game in those contests.
And yet, the No. 15 Irish are 6-2 heading into this Saturday’s contest against 4-4 Duke (7:30 p.m., ACC Network).
A factor that some look to as the reason for the struggling offense is play calling. Offensive coordinator Chip Long is in his third season as the play caller for Notre Dame, and has done well in his first two seasons. In 2017, the offense averaged 448.4 yards-per-game. Last year, it averaged 440 yards. In 2019, however, it’s down to 418.9 yards.
Head coach Brian Kelly said it’s been more about offensive execution than play calling for the struggles this year.
“Calling plays is an art, and there’s a science to it. I think that when you look at it through that lens — and I certainly do, having experienced that view — there’s a number of times where we had some plays called that were perfect fits that weren’t executed to the level that we need to,” Kelly said. “And then there were a couple of plays that were called that weren’t the best play call. We’re always looking at ‘What can we call better in certain situations? What can we execute better?’ … I’m pleased with what Chip is doing in terms of his play calling. Now it’s a matter of executing at a higher level.”
Kelly also noted the nature of Notre Dame’s offense this year hasn’t allowed for as many plays to be ran. Last year, the Irish averaged 73 plays-per-game on offense. This season, that number is 68. Notre Dame has eclipsed more than 80 plays in a game just twice this year — 80 against USC and 91 last week vs. Virginia Tech.
“By and large, it’s been, for us, an offense — up until the last couple of weeks — where we have been a big-play offense,” Kelly said. “We haven’t run a lot of plays; our plays were down, other than this week where we were over 90. And that has just been the nature of the offensive structure, in that we’ve hit a lot of big plays.”
VAUGHN’S LAST STAND
After having a disappointing performance in the Cotton Bowl last year, it was unsure if senior cornerback Donte Vaughn would see the field for Notre Dame in 2019. There were talks of even redshirting Vaughn this year, keeping him eligible for the 2020 season.
The 6-2 corner has stepped up, though, and become a full-time starter opposite senior Troy Pride. Vaughn took over the starting position when senior Shaun Crawford went down with an injury.
“I just think the mindset begins to change when the clock starts ticking, and I think for Donte, the clock is ticking,” Kelly said. “He knows he’s running out of time, and he’s got the physical ability to do it. Seems to me, in my experience of being a head coach, that those guys start to think about, ‘I want to play, and I’m not going to hold myself back because of wondering and worrying about what happened in the past.’”
Kelly also mentioned that while Vaughn will start against the Blue Devils, backup TaRiq Bracy will also get some playing time.
“We like having (Vaughn) out there. His size, obviously, is a factor in that,” Kelly said. “You’ll see a little more TaRiq this week as well, in terms of the rotation.”
SCHEDULING GODS UNKIND
Seven opponents get a bye week before playing Notre Dame this season, including Duke. Virginia Tech was also coming off a bye week before their visit to South Bend last week. New Mexico, Bowling Green and USC had byes before playing Notre Dame, and future opponents Navy and Boston College have them as well.
Such is life, says the Notre Dame head coach.
“Everything seems to be an add-on to the contract: officials, replay officials, things of that nature. Then it’s bye weeks prior to,” Kelly said. “You know, it’s the life of an independent. You get what you get. Get on the plane, we’ll play you.”