Five games into the college football season, and Notre Dame has yet to land within a touchdown of the closing point spread. The volatile Fighting Irish enter Saturday night’s nationally televised road contest at Virginia Tech (ABC, 8 p.m.) as the #6 team in the nation…despite barely beating Ball State and Vanderbilt as double-digit favorites.
*Notre Dame’s covers: by 9.5 points as a mispriced home underdog to Michigan, by 23 points at Wake Forest, and by 16.5 points vs. Stanford (the latter two after switching quarterbacks from sluggish Brandon Wimbush to sharp passer Ian Book).
*Notre Dame’s non-covers: by 26 points vs. Ball State, and by 9 points vs. Vanderbilt.
It was those two non-covers that got Wimbush benched. Not because ND backers were losing money. But because the offense was playing so far below reasonable expectations that something had to be done. So far, so good.
Virginia Tech has shown some volatility of its own. You surely heard about the shocking loss to Old Dominion that missed the spread by 41.5 points. But, the Hokies have two victories that beat expectations by more than three touchdowns. You probably watched their season-opening upset of Florida State that got the money by 28 points. Last week, new quarterback Ryan Willis led them to a 23.5-point cover in a 31-14 upset of Duke (prior starter Josh Jackson suffered a broken tibia against ODU).
Given extremes, how can you confidently handicap a game like Notre Dame/Virginia Tech?!
It’s great to see both teams moving in the right direction, despite the small sample sizes. Conveniently, both new quarterbacks did lead their teams to road victories against physically comparable ACC foes. Let’s check out the box scores…
Notre Dame 56, Wake Forest 27
Yards-per-Play: Notre Dame 7.4, Wake Forest 4.3
Turnovers: Notre Dame 1, Wake Forest 1
TD Drives of 60 yards: Notre Dame 6, Wake Forest 3
Stat dominance for the Irish in what supposed to be a much tighter game. Poise from Book in terms of avoiding turnovers for the most part. And, two of those long Wake Forest TD drives came in garbage time after falling behind 49-13.
Virginia Tech 31, Duke 14
Yards-per-Play: Virginia Tech 6.0, Duke 4.4
Turnovers: Virginia Tech 0, Duke 1
TD Drives of 60 yards: Virginia Tech 3, Duke 1
Productivity and poise from the Hokies, but less explosiveness.
That by itself is enough to tell you why Notre Dame is favored. Missing from the equation…Book followed the Wake Forest win with a statistical rout of much more respected Stanford! Notre Dame won that one 38-17, with a yardage edge of 550-229 on 9.5 to 4.5 yards-per-play.
Within our limited sample size, Notre Dame looks to be more than one touchdown better at this site. Handicappers must determine if Book will become turnover prone in the first LOUD hostile environment of his college career…or if Willis will be pressured into mistakes if he’s forced to play from behind against an opponent much more physically intimidating than Duke.
If Notre Dame and Book impress again, we’ll be discussing the undefeated Irish a lot this season as they try to crash the Final Four party.