College News & Analysis

College Football 2020: The three most important plays of Week 10

South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book (12) looks to throw in the second quarter against the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame defeated Clemson 47-40 in two overtimes. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

We're getting closer and closer to figuring out who the best teams in the country are, and the Notre Dame vs. Clemson and Georgia vs. Florida games gave us some clarity. The Georgia Bulldogs, without a real quarterback, have eliminated themselves from playoff contention. The Florida Gators, who have a competent quarterback for the first time in ages, have put themselves back in playoff contention. Notre Dame, with the best quarterback performance they’ve had in years, now leads the ACC. Clemson, without a full team, took Notre Dame to overtime.

Every game from now on becomes more and more important. Here are the three most important plays from Week 10 of the 2020 college football slate.

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Ian Book to Tommy Tremble against Man Coverage vs. Clemson

Ian Book has not become the quarterback a lot of people would have hoped for. Going into this game against Clemson, he had just one 90.0-plus single-game passing grade to his name against Power 5 competition. And that came two years ago against Stanford.

The Irish have won many games during that time, but it's almost been in spite of their quarterback rather than because of him.

Whether it turns out to be a one-game fluke or not, Ian Book toasted Clemson on Saturday night. He produced his second-ever 90.0-plus grade against a Power 5 opponent to put Notre Dame in the driver's seat to play in its first-ever ACC title game.

Very early on, it looked as if it was going to be another one of those maddening Book games. In the first quarter, the Notre Dame signal-caller failed to pull the trigger on two potentially huge completions. First, he missed a diagonal crossing route that came open when an inside linebacker jumped the shorter baiting route — no throw from Book. Not long later, a deep-out route was wide open with Book staring at it — once again, he didn’t pull the trigger.

If the quarterback had continued to play exactly like that, there is no way Notre Dame wins this game. This is why his completion to Tommy Tremble is the most important play in college football this weekend.

Here (above), Book is looking at the cornerback to the short side of the field to start the play. Once that cornerback runs underneath with his receiver, Book knows there will be space over the top of him. Now he’s looking at the safety who is rotating from that side to the middle of the field. The safety runs a little too far inside before trying to recover and jump Tremble’s route. Even in tight coverage, Book makes a great throw for a big completion.

From that throw on, Book was lights out. He barely put the ball in harm's way through the air, he made some incredibly accurate throws and, maybe more importantly, he actually threw the ball down the field.

The Irish's longtime starter recorded the highest average depth of target in any single game in his career at 13.8 yards. Going into the Clemson game, Book had recorded an 8.4-yard average depth of target. Just over half of Book’s throw came short of the line to gain this season, but only a third of them landed behind the sticks against Clemson this week.

Whether we get this Ian Book going forward remains to be seen, but for one night in South Bend, he was the reason they knocked off the No. 1 team in the country.

D.J. Uiagelelei to Cornell Powell off Play Action vs. Notre Dame

D.J. had another very good game, this time against a very good Notre Dame defense, almost putting the team on his back and starting the comeback in the second half before forcing the game into overtime.

The Clemson running game produced its worst-ever performance since 2014 last week against Boston College, putting up a pitiful -0.63 expected points added (EPA) per play on the ground. It was the passing game that carried them to a comeback victory. The story was the same this week in South Bend, as Clemson’s -0.59 EPA per play ranks as the second-worst rushing performance since 2014.

Smartly, in both games, the Clemson coaching staff veered away from the running game early enough. Only 37.5% of all plays in the game against Notre Dame were run plays. Clemson at least still understood that even though Trevor Lawrence is not playing, their backup might still be one of the country's top quarterbacks. Lucky!

The Irish were triggering their inside linebackers quickly whenever they saw the offensive linemen fire out for a run block. Mike linebacker Drew White had seven tackles in the game, with six of them constituting a defensive stop. He finished with an elite 87.4 run-defense grade, as Clemson’s offensive line just couldn’t handle him.

Of course, the key to success against a team that is going to have all sorts of eyes in the backfield is to catch them with play action. And that’s exactly what Clemson did. In the 84 games since 2014 in which Clemson attempted at least five play-action passes, their 0.69 EPA per play against Notre Dame this week is the 14th highest.

Whether it was a screen pass off play action or a classic downfield shot, Clemson was able to create explosive plays time and time again.

Going back to the earlier clip of the touchdown pass to Cornell Powell, we can see one of the differences in how Notre Dame plays defense compared to Boston College. In the single-high safety world that Boston College lives in, big plays deep down the middle are rare. There is always going to be a “post safety” standing there playing centerfield. As such, D.J. was forced to make a lot of throws outside.

Against Notre Dame, a team that plays a lot more two-high safety coverages, you can create some openings in the middle of the field because, after the distribution of routes against a quarters defense, the defense can often end up in a Cover 0 situation.

On the play in question, Notre Dame is bracketing the slot receiver to the field. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is lined up on the outside shoulder of Amari Rodgers. And by alignment, he’ll take away any outside routes by the slot.

Because of that alignment, the safety has to play any vertical and inside breaks. Rodgers releases inside and vertical, which forces the safety to commit his eyes to him. D.J. sees it, trusts Powell to get open in what has now become a one-on-one situation between the receiver and cornerback, and they create an explosive play.

If not for some fluke plays late in the first half, Clemson still moved the ball pretty well, and it bodes well for them should they have to play Notre Dame again in the title game, this time with a full squad.

Kyle Trask to Nay’Quan Wright on the Wheel vs. Georgia

Georgia did it again. They shut down an explosive offense’s running game. They took away the best part of what their opponent does in the passing game. And then they gave up over 40 points.

Just as it did against Alabama, the Georgia defense allowed a busload of points against Florida.

Florida doesn’t have the most efficient rushing attack, as they produce just 0.06 EPA per play. But Georgia still came through and suffocated the Gators on the ground, shutting them down to the tune of -0.24 EPA per play. Tick off that box.

Florida’s offense had been picking up a tremendous amount of yards on Kyle Trask passes that hit their mark short of the sticks. As I wrote last week, “Trask’s passer rating ranks first in the country on these throws among all quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts.” Trask throws short, and his playmakers break tackles and create first downs.

Well, Georgia shut this aspect of Florida’s defense down, as well. Georgia allowed 0.16 EPA per play on these short-of-the sticks throws. Florida had been at 0.28 EPA per play. But Florida players only forced two missed tackles on 21 targets from those throws in Week 10, their fewest of the season by far. Tick off that box.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they had no answer for outside vertical routes — just as they had no answer for outside vertical routes against Alabama. Kyle Trask was not tasked with having to make many reads and throws over the middle of the field.

Trask only attempted 10 passes between the numbers and beyond 5 yards. He completed four and coughed up an interception. But outside the numbers and beyond 5 yards? He went 15-for-21 for three touchdowns.

Whether it was a wheel route or a straight go route, this is where Florida found success the whole game. Trask put the ball on the money on so many of these outside-the-numbers throws.

One of the big wheel routes came on their first snap after Trask's pick-six. If you rewatch the clip, you’ll notice how many seconds are left on the play clock and how Georgia is still trying to get their call in and get lined up. Florida called their play from the sideline, ran out there, snapped the football and created a wide-open wheel route.

Georgia is in two-high and is playing what’s known as a “cone” concept between the cornerback and safety. If the single receiver runs inside on a drag route, the cornerback will actually fall off and the safety will drive down and intercept that route. This is a common call because you don’t want that single receiver racing across the field while the cornerback is in chase mode and having to weave through a lot of traffic.

You can see at the snap that the safety starts driving down on the route by the single receiver; you can also see the cornerback come off. The problem is that because Florida came out and ran the play so fast, the cornerback and linebacker to that side didn’t have a chance to make a “connie” call, which overrides the “cone” call.

Connie allows the linebacker and cornerback to pass off the single receiver and the running back to that side. Instead, the linebacker gets picked and has to fight through a receiver, and the safety is no longer deep. The cornerback is the only guy, but he’s a bit late to come off, and it results in a wide-open receiver.

The Gators will see a very similar defense should they make it to Atlanta and play Alabama in the SEC title game, so this blow-out should bode well for the future.

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