Vegas rates Virginia a 9 1/2-point favorite over Old Dominion on Saturday, with an over/under on total points at 52 1/2. But such routine odds ignore this matchup’s deep intrigue.
Looking for a real test of your handicapping skills? Willing to risk some coin, or just make a friendly wager, on a crazy prop bet?
If so, set an over/under on the teams’ combined third-down conversions. And pro tip: Make it low.
After two games — small sample size duly noted — Virginia is tied for 112th among 131 FBS teams in third-down percentage. The Cavaliers are 8 of 28, or 28.6%, with seven of those conversions coming in their season-opening victory over FCS Richmond.
Most telling, UVa was a devastating 1 of 16 in last week’s 24-3 setback at Illinois. And the only conversion was courtesy of a fourth-quarter defensive holding penalty, which carries an automatic first down.
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Twice the Cavaliers came up short on third-and-2. Once they whiffed on third-and-1.
But manageable third downs were rare. The average yardage Virginia needed to convert was 9.2, and in one stretch the Cavaliers faced sequential third downs requiring 19, 21, 12, 10 and 10 yards to go.
Illinois overpowered UVa’s offensive line, pressured quarterback Brennan Armstrong, stuffed the running game and blanketed receivers, limiting the Cavaliers to 222 yards, their fewest since they gained 191 in a 10-0 home loss to Virginia Tech five years ago.
Last season against Illinois, Virginia gained 210 yards — in the first quarter. The Cavaliers finished with 556 and won comfortably 42-14.
But last year’s five starting offensive linemen departed during the offseason, as did head coach Bronco Mendenhall, offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck. New big whistle Tony Elliott was an exceptional OC at Clemson, and his offensive coordinator, Des Kitchings, has quality ACC and NFL experience, but coaching and schematic transitions usually require time.
The Illinois defeat was a jarring example.
Old Dominion’s offensive coordinator changes are even more peculiar. Coach Ricky Rahne dismissed his hand-picked choice for the job, Kirk Campbell, after the 2021 Monarchs secured bowl eligibility with a 56-34 victory over Charlotte in the regular-season finale. He then hired Dave Patenaude, who abruptly resigned Aug. 12 before coaching a game at ODU.
Rahne elevated offensive line coach Kevin Reihner to coordinator, and even in their 20-17 season-opening upset of Virginia Tech, the Monarchs moved the ball sparingly. Quarterback Hayden Wolff was far more effective in last week’s 39-21 loss at East Carolina, but ODU failed on all but one of its eight third downs.
Little wonder. The yards to gain were 24, 12, 10, 8, 13, 20, 14 and 10, for an average of 13.9. Ouch!
Moreover, through two games, ODU has converted 3 of 23 third downs, a 13% rate that ranks last nationally.
Virginia Tech rebounded from its sloppy and undisciplined opener with an emphatic 27-10 home conquest of Boston College last week, but the Hokies’ offense was again unreliable. Turnover-free after five giveaways to ODU, Tech misfired on 12 of 17 third downs for the second time in as many games.
The Hokies’ 10-of-34 conversion rate, 29.4%, ranks 109th nationally, a stark contrast to their FBS-leading third-down defense (13.3%).
“Too many third-and-longs that make it difficult,” rookie head coach Brent Pry said Tuesday of the offense. “We’ve got to help ourselves there and be better on first down.”
No question. Tech’s average yards needed on third down is 8.8, and only five of its 34 attempts have required 4 yards or less. Conversely, the Hokies have faced third downs requiring 14, 17, 12, 16, 20 and 15 yards.
As at Virginia and ODU, Tech’s interwoven issues include penalties, ineffective running on early downs and adjusting to a new offensive coordinator (Tyler Bowen).
Again, the season is young, and no metric is unfailingly predictive, but chances are, if your offense is consistently saddled with third-and-forever, it’s going to be a long year.