Notre Dame is bowl-eligible after just six weeks. The No. 6 Fighting Irish picked up their sixth win of the season Saturday night, beating No. 24 Virginia Tech 45-23 in Blacksburg, Virginia. It’s the third-straight week the Irish offense managed to score at least 38 points after a slow start to the season, and not coincidentally, it’s also the third straight game in which Ian Book started at quarterback for Notre Dame.
Book finished the game completing 25 of his 35 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns. As has usually been the case, his favorite target was Miles Boykin, who caught eight passes for 117 yards and both scores. Still, as well as they both played, Dexter Williams was the real star of the Notre Dame offense. He rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries, averaging 10.5 yards per carry.
Virginia Tech was led by Ryan Willis, who threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns but also had a fumble and an interception. The loss drops the Hokies to 3-2 on the season, while the Irish may have faced the last ranked opponent of the 2018 campaign with half a season left.
Here are four takeaways from Notre Dame’s victory.
1. Notre Dame might be favored in every game from here on out: To assume any team is going to win every game — even Alabama — is a foolish practice, but if you look at what remains on Notre Dame’s schedule, it’s not easy to find the loss. Notre Dame is already 6-0 and has games remaining against Pitt, Navy, Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse and USC. There are certainly games the Irish could lose — Northwestern and Florida State may be tricky — but it’s unlikely they’ll be the underdog in any game before the season finale against USC, and they might be favored there as well. If it were being played in South Bend, Indiana, they’d almost certainly be favored.
When you look at what Notre Dame has accomplished so far, beating three ranked teams (well, Virginia Tech will be ranked for a few more hours anyway), you can make the argument it already has the most impressive resume in the country. It’s going to be hard to improve upon it from here on out unless some teams change the trajectory of their seasons, but the Irish look like a team that could flirt with an undefeated regular season.
2. Book is the best option for Notre Dame at quarterback: The Irish were a good team and won a lot of games with Brandon Wimbush, but Book is the better option for this team. He gives the offense a higher floor and a higher ceiling. While he isn’t capable of taking off for a long touchdown run like Wimbush can, he’s just the safer option. He threw his first interception of the season on Saturday night, and even if he doesn’t have the strongest throwing arm (his downfield accuracy is questionable at best), the way the Irish use him is effective.
You see Book throw a lot of short passes and screens, which draws the defense to the line of scrimmage, and that leads to coverage busts and giant targets like Miles Boykin open deep. When your target is wide open, you don’t have to be nearly as accurate, and to this point, it’s working out quite well for Book and the Irish. And while he doesn’t have the mobility that Wimbush does, Book does a good job of moving around in the pocket and extending plays, giving his receivers time to get open. Combined with Dexter Williams at running back, Book gives Notre Dame a well-rounded offense that it doesn’t have with Wimbush, and that makes it more difficult to defend.
3. Speaking of Dexter Williams, he’s been a spark as well: Book receives most of the attention because that’s what happens with QBs, but don’t overlook the impact the Irish rusher has had since returning. His first game of the season was against Stanford last week, and he had 161 yards rushing, including a 45-yard touchdown run on his first touch. Tonight Williams’ big play was a 97-yard TD run in the third quarter that seemed to break Virginia Tech’s spirit. His explosive ability makes this offense very dangerous.
4. Ryan Willis may be Tech’s best QB, but he is far from polished. When you watch Willis play, you can see plenty to like. He’s got a big arm, and he’s not afraid to stand in the pocket to take a hit. Of course, those positives can also be negatives. That arm might be strong, but it isn’t always accurate, and sometimes Willis is holding on to the ball too long in the pocket.
The perfect Willis sequence happened late in the second quarter. With Tech trailing 10-9 Willis didn’t get rid of the ball when nobody was open and took a sack. As he was hit from behind, he fumbled the ball and Notre Dame’s Julian Love scooped it up and took it 42 yards to the house to give Notre Dame a 17-0 lead. Willis responded by leading the Hokies on a beautiful 75-yard touchdown drive, marching down the field in 56 seconds with eight plays. He was damn near perfect on the drive.
He has a ceiling that’s enticing enough to make you wonder if he won’t keep the job when Josh Jackson returns from a broken leg, but he also seems to press at times and makes the kind of throws that can drive a coach crazy. It will be interesting to see how he evolves over the coming weeks.
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