Back Virginia Tech in Win-Win Situation at Notre Dame

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Virginia Tech in Win-Win Situation at Notre Dame

By Dave Holcomb
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No one expects them to win, but if Justin Fuente’s squad can extend their winning streak with an upset at Notre Dame, all the sudden, things will appear back on track in Blacksburg.

The term “no-lose situation” is one of the many cliches in sports fans and/or the media overuse and misapply. Truthfully, there is no such thing as the feeling of nothing to lose since there’s a winner and loser in every game (at least at the college football level).

But there’s a lot to like about the Virginia Tech Hokies rolling into Notre Dame Stadium as big underdogs against the Fighting Irish this Saturday. No one expects them to win, but if Justin Fuente’s squad can extend their winning streak with an upset at Notre Dame, all the sudden, things will appear back on track in Blacksburg.

Despite a 31-point loss at Michigan last week, Notre Dame enters the matchup with Virginia Tech as a 17.5-point favorite. That’s largely due to the lack of respect for the ACC Coastal around the country and because the No. 16 Fighting Irish are on a 15-game home winning streak, which is the third-longest in program history.

But Virginia Tech has quietly put together its own winning streak since an embarrassing defeat at home against Duke in primetime on the last Friday of September. The Hokies rebounded with victories against Miami, Rhode Island and then a thrilling six-overtime win versus North Carolina.

The running game and an efficient passing attack have been the keys to Virginia Tech’s resurgence. The Hokies have incredibly averaged more than 47 rushing attempts in the last three games. While the running game hasn’t always been the most dynamic -- it’s averaged 4.4 yards per carry during the three-game stretch -- the Hokies have been dedicated to running the ball.

The “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of football died long ago, but it’s working for Virginia Tech at the moment.

Sticking to the running game enables a team to do a couple different things. For one, it usually leads to a greater time of possession and thus helps prevent defensive exposure. Virginia Tech has controlled the clock an average of almost 31 minutes per game over the last three contests. In the blowout loss against Duke, the Hokies held possession for under 28 minutes.

Virginia Tech’s defense is still giving up 31 points per game during its winning streak, but that’s better than the 40 points per contest the Hokies yielded against their first two Power 5 opponents.

Running the ball can prevent offensive mistakes too -- interceptions, sacks, holding penalties, etc. During the three-game winning streak, Virginia Tech has not thrown an interception and owns a plus-3 turnover margin. In the first four games of the season, the Hokies had five interceptions and a minus-8 turnover differential.

Sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker and the other Hokies quarterbacks have improved their ball security, but it helps when the offense is running the ball more than two-thirds of the time.

Such a strategy -- control possession and win the turnover margin -- is exactly what could upset the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. It nearly worked for Pitt last season.

It took the Panthers 30 rushing attempts to reach 116 yards, which is an average of 3.9 per carry, on the ground last year at Notre Dame. Pitt gained only 242 yards and gave up 344, and yet, because the Panthers controlled the ball for more than 33 minutes and were plus-2 in turnover differential, Notre Dame needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to win by only five.

If Virginia Tech can get a couple more plays behind center from Herndon or Quincy Patterson than Pitt did a year ago, the Hokies can shock the Fighting Irish. It also will take junior running back Deshawn McClease having one of his best games of the season. He leads the team with 475 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

The Virginia Tech players should be looser for this game than they have been for any other contest in a long time. While the atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium can be overwhelming with the crowd and historic significance of the building, the Hokies can play “freer” because this game doesn’t hold much significance to them. They are expected to lose by a lot, and if they do, Virginia Tech can still win the ACC Coastal and/or go to a bowl game.

Should they win, they’d bring some prominence back to Virginia Tech and the ACC Coastal, which is a division that’s a punching bag at the moment among the college football ranks.

Notre Dame has all the pressure, as it tries to extend its home winning streak and avoid a second consecutive embarrassing loss. The combination of these two mindsets could make for a very interesting afternoon in South Bend on Saturday.