Ian Book key to Notre Dame covering large point spread vs. Virginia Tech

Notre Dame QB Ian Book vs Michigan, Oct 26, 2019
Notre Dame QB Ian Book (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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After getting embarrassed by Michigan on Saturday, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters that his team must get back to controlling the line of scrimmage against Virginia Tech. But it will be Ian Book’s play that decides whether the Irish cover the point spread in Week 10.

On paper, the Irish face a good matchup in the trenches, but the Hokies’ improved run game with a bye week to prepare is cause for concern. Since his time at Memphis, Va Tech coach Justin Fuente is 8-4 straight up and 10-2 against the spread coming off a bye week.

Another cause for concern is Kelly’s continued lack of progression from his second-year quarterbacks since 2014. Ian Book has taken a step back after finishing the year near the top of the FBS in completion percentage. Book’s 59.2% completion rate this season, paired with a 73-yard passing performance (2.7 yards per attempt) against Michigan, left Kelly spending most of Monday’s press conference talking about the quarterback situation. Backup Phil Jurkovec stepped in late for Book and was 3-of-4 for 60 yards and a TD, albeit in garbage time.

Virginia Tech’s secondary is beatable, but Book needs to show more poise in the pocket against a d-line that ranks 22nd nationally in sack rate. With cold and windy temperatures expected in South Bend on Saturday, Kelly has to trust Book to throw the ball downfield to prevent turning the Irish into a one-dimensional rushing offense.

Virginia Tech at Notre Dame betting notes

Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET/1:30 p.m. CT, NBC
Open: Notre Dame -16.5, 56.5
Midweek: Notre Dame -17.5, 58
Betting records: VT 5-2 SU, 2-5 ATS; ND 5-2 SU, 4-3 ATS
Notable trend: Kelly has kicked off as a home favorite eight times when falling more than 10 points below the spread margin in his previous effort (the Irish were 1-point favorites in their 45-14 loss at Michigan). Notre Dame has covered just one game (Navy 2011) in this situation, coming up short of a -13.2 average line by 7.3 points per game.

MORE: CFB Week 10 betting lines

How Virginia Tech can cover the spread

As we touched on last week, Notre Dame’s defensive line has taken a step back from last season. The Irish allowed 303 ground yards on 57 rushes against Michigan and rank 96th nationally in opportunity rate (the percentage of carries in which the opposing offensive line produces at least five yards of rushing) and 108th in power success rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown).

While VT’s offensive line isn’t as formidable as Michigan’s, it has helped ball carriers surpass 200 yards on the ground the past two games in wins over North Carolina and Rhode Island. Those opponents obviously aren’t to the Irish’s caliber, but the Hokies managed a 48% opportunity rate in last season’s 45-23 loss to the Irish as 6.5-point home dogs.

Don’t read too much into that final score, as VT won the yards and time-of-possession battle. Notre Dame had a defensive touchdown and a 97-yard run to inflate the final score. Advanced data set SP+ gave the Irish an adjusted scoring margin of 15.3 in that game and lists the Irish as 14.6 points better than VT for Saturday’s game.

A negative turnover margin this season has hurt the Hokies, but new starting QB Hendon Hooker has been a blessing with a 7:0 TD:INT ratio and mobility that turnover-prone Ryan Willis lacked. Hooker is practicing and, per Fuente, “looks good” more than a week after he left just before halftime against North Carolina with a knee injury. Hooker’s mobility and lack of turnovers could loom large in the red zone, where Notre Dame ranks 127th nationally, allowing 18 scores on 19 trips.

How Notre Dame can cover the spread

For those contemplating buying low on the Irish offense, it doesn’t get much lower than nine three-and-outs (eight with Book at QB in 11 drives) against Michigan. A return home after an embarrassing loss could motivate Kelly to open up the vertical passing game and get Jafar Armstrong involved in explosive plays as promised (but unfulfilled) two games ago.

Virginia Tech’s defense ranks 100th or worse nationally in several passing statistics, and the Irish must take advantage with Book being poised in the pocket to avoid the Hokies’ strong pass rush. Irish WR Michael Young entering the transfer portal doesn’t help Book’s attack, but Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet are large targets who should see increased volume on Saturday, especially on deeper throws.

Notre Dame recorded fewer havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defended and forced fumbles) than either USC or Michigan in its two most recent games. Facing an offensive line ranked 96th in sack rate, this must change on Saturday. When Notre Dame won and covered against Virginia, havoc and defense were paramount, as the Irish recorded 13 team tackles for loss, 11 by the d-line. Considering the Cavaliers’ o-line rates out worse than the Hokies’ unit, this should be a point of emphasis for Kelly to see his physicality demands come to fruition.