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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Between Ian Book and running game, Irish offense reaches new heights

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — If the Irish weren’t decked out in gold and white, you might not have recognized them in the sweltering heat of Saturday afternoon in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Mostly because the number on the scoreboard seemed a bit too high for it to be the offense we saw struggle against Ball State and Vanderbilt.

Against Michigan, the Irish (4-0) threw for 170 yards and one touchdown, and they rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Against Ball State the numbers went up a bit, but not much. The Irish threw for 297, and they rushed for 117 and three touchdowns. And against Vanderbilt things seemed to come to a grinding halt, when the Irish threw for 135 yards and one touchdown, and they rushed for 245 yards and one touchdown.

But if you looked at the jumbotron on the hill at BB&T Field on Saturday, you’d see an unmistakable 56 points under Notre Dame’s logo.

So what changed?

Most noticeably, junior Ian Book took over at quarterback. But surely, there were a number of things Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s staff decided to do differently on Saturday. Whatever the case may be, what was undeniable about the game against Wake Forest, was that the Irish produced efficiently and often.

Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Ian Book hands the ball off to junior running back Tony Jones Jr. during Notre Dame's 56-27 win over Wake Forest at BB&T Field on Saturday.

Through the air, Ian Book threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns, and on the ground, the Irish rushed for 241 yards and six touchdowns against the Demon Deacons (2-2, 0-1 ACC). Although Book’s efforts may have been most noticeable on account of the change at the quarterback position, the offensive efficiency was truly a group effort for the Irish on Saturday.

Sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong had his first true breakout game of the season, rushing for 98 yards and two touchdowns on eight attempts.

Armstrong has been a strong options at running back all season, but the Wake Forest game showed a marked improvement and Armstrong himself said this is a result of the comfort that comes with an increase in game experience.

“The first couple of games, I was just going out there to try to make something happen,” Armstrong said. “I was definitely too high sometimes, there were definitely yards I felt like I left on the ground, and it hurt the past couple of weeks not finishing. But I feel like that changed as the weeks go on. And I just had to get comfortable. I haven’t played [running back] much. … I played a little bit during pop warner, so this is like my first time in a new position. So, you know I’m just trusting myself and just trusting my teaching, and I feel like every week I’ve improved for sure.

“The first few weeks I felt like I wasn’t getting enough yards at all. I felt like I was getting hit by one guy and just going down. And [running backs coach Autry] Denson, he pointed out a lot during film, and just seeing different guys and seeing how the running backs are working, and truly honing into my craft at running back I feel like I’ve improved every week.”

But it certainly wasn’t just Armstrong who made the difference for the Irish on the ground in Winston-Salem. Sophomore Avery Davis and junior Tony Jones Jr., who rushed for a touchdown in the game, were crucial to the ground attack. Plus, all three of these players combined for six receptions for 62 yards, an addition to the passing game which freed up a number of receivers in coverage. Armstrong talked about how important it was for the running backs to be involved in the receiving game so that some of the team’s receivers can have the freedom to make plays.

“I think the more plays we can make, the more it opens up for the receivers,” Armstrong said. “So, you know, if we’re out there making plays, then they’re going to have their eyes on us, and then guys like [senior] Miles [Boykin], [junior] Chase [Claypool] and [senior Chris] Finke, who are really good receivers, make plays. … It’s been good for us to get involved in the pass game for sure.”

And of course, much of this offensive production was thanks to Book, who threw for two touchdowns and rushed for three. It appeared as if his game paved the way for this increase in offensive production as a whole. After the game, Book talked about how the Irish offense planned to bring some tempo to the game, presumably in response to the high tempo akeake Forest offense, and how it felt to get into a rhythm early on.

“It felt good to get in a rhythm, it really did,” Book said. “We wanted to bring some tempo, and I thought the offense did that, and just getting into a rhythm, it was really good to see that for our offense today. And just not letting up in the second half, we always want to keep scoring in the second half and keep applying the pressure. So, I’m happy with the guys and the offense, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

In any case, as a unit, the offense proved its capabilities on Saturday. It was as if each unit’s talents supported and accentuated the talents of the others, whereas in many games this season it’s felt as if some units were covering for others that struggled.

After the game, Armstrong said he knew the offense had the talent to score big every game, it just needed to calm down.

“I always felt like we were capable of scoring 50 points a game, but you know it’s just keeping your foot on the gas every weekend,” Armstrong said. “In the first week, we knew were going to struggle, teams were going to come out and be all over us. You know, this week I felt like we finally calmed down and came into ourselves and showed how balanced we are as an offense.”

It’s safe to say the Irish offense did calm down on Sunday. And as a result, it lead Notre Dame to its highest score since September 2015 and a key victory.