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Virginia Tech will get their first shot at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium. It is the first of four meetings that are currently scheduled between 2016 and 2021.
Before the season started, the Irish were ranked in the top 10 and people thought they had a legit chance to make the playoffs. Virginia Tech fans thought a victory in South Bend would be very difficult. Fast forward a few months and the Irish are 4-6 on the season and nobody would be surprised if the Hokies went into Notre Dame Stadium and won the game.
This is a moment we’ve been waiting for for a long time. It means nothing in terms of the ACC Coastal Division race, but a victory would probably get the Hokies back in the national rankings and provide momentum heading into the Virginia game and (hopefully) the ACC Championship Game against Clemson.
From the Irish perspective, this game is also big. Notre Dame must defeat the Hokies on Saturday to remain bowl eligible, while Brian Kelly is fighting to stay off the hot seat. His job is still very safe after this season, but another year like this in 2017 could put him in a lot of danger. There’s a lot riding on this one for Notre Dame.
Let’s take a look at some of the major trends and matchups that could play a role in Saturday’s game.
Another Mobile Quarterback
Virginia Tech has struggled with mobile quarterbacks in recent years. This season in particular has been a nightmare at times. The Hokies struggled to stop the scrambles of Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey, but more traditional read options and designed quarterback runs have given them fits in other games.
Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee: 14 carries, 106 yards, 2 TDs (1 of 2 100-yard games this year)
Eric Dungey, Syracuse: 24 carries, 106 yards, 1 TD (only game with more than 54 yards this year)
Daniel Jones, Duke: 18 carries, 99 yards, 2 TDs (highest rushing total of the year)
Matthew Jordan, Georgia Tech: 32 carries, 121 yards, 2 TDs (highest rushing total of the year)
All of those guys blistered the Hokie defense this year. In fact, the Hokies have lost all three games in which they allowed the opposing QB to rush for 100 yards, and they barely beat Daniel Jones and his 99 yards when they faced Duke.
Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer (6-4, 230, Jr.) has not had a 100 yard rushing game so far this year, but he hasn’t faced the Tech defense yet. All the guys listed above had their best performances of the year against the Hokies, so we have to assume that Kizer will do the same. He’s a very capable runner. Here are his game-by-game numbers on the ground…
Texas: 13 carries, 77 yards, 5.9 ypc, 1 TD
Nevada: 10 carries, 35 yards, 3.5 ypc, 1 TD
Michigan State: 9 carries, 14 yards, 1.6 ypc, 2 TDs
Duke: 11 carries, 60 yards, 5.5 ypc, 1 TD
Syracuse: 9 carries, 1 yard, 0.1 ypc, 1 TD
NC State: 15 carries, 15 yards, 1 ypc, 0 TD
Stanford: 11 carries, 83 yards, 7.5 ypc, 1 TD
Navy: 9 carries, 52 yards, 5.8 ypc, 0 TD
Army: 7 carries, 72 yards, 10.3 ypc, 0 TD
Total: 102 carries, 440 yards, 4.3 ypc, 7 TDs
Throw out the 21 sacks for a loss of 116 yards, and Kizer has 81 carries for 556 yards on the season. That’s an average of 6.9 yards per carry. If you’re a Virginia Tech fan, or Bud Foster, those numbers concern you.
They scare you even more when you realize that Kizer is also an excellent passer. He’s rated as one of the top NFL quarterback prospects in the country, and he’s put up impressive numbers this season. Kizer has completed 60.5% of his passes for 2,470 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s a threat through the air as well as on the ground.
The Hokies have banged up defensive ends right, now, but they’ve struggled to stop mobile quarterbacks in recent years even when they were healthy on defense. Bud Foster is one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in college football, so he needs to figure this thing out and it has to start this weekend if the Hokies want to win.
Youth In the Secondary
Notre Dame features a number of young players who have had to see the field for a lot of snaps this season, especially in the secondary. Some of these players are backups in the two-deep, but others have been forced into the starting rotation.
CB Julian Love (5-10, 190, Fr.): Love has started six games at cornerback as a true freshman.
CB Donte Vaughn (6-2, 200, Fr.): Vaughn has started four games at cornerback as a true freshman.
S Devin Studstill (6-0, 198, Fr.): Studstill has started seven games at safety as a true freshman.
CB Troy Pride, Jr. (5-11, 180, Fr.): The former Virginia Tech commit has started two games at cornerback as a true freshman.
The Notre Dame secondary has struggled, particularly early in the season, and much of those struggles were due to youth and inexperience.
If you look at the advanced stats of the Irish, it’s easy to tell that the secondary has struggled.
S&P+ Passing: #79
Passing Success Rate: #92
Passing IsoPPP (big plays): #87
Combine that with the fact that the front seven has failed to generate pressure on the quarterback (13 sacks, #113 in adjusted sack rate), and you have the makings of a defense that can’t stop offenses from throwing the football. Remember, those numbers also include a game against Army in which the Black Knights were just 2-of-8 passing for 13 yards, and a game against Navy in which the Midshipmen went 5-of-8 for 48 yards.
Defensive Coordinator Change Has Yielded Good Results
After Notre Dame lost to Duke to begin the season 1-3, Brian Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. There were rumors that Kelly and VanGorder had never gotten along and the poor start was all Kelly needed to make the switch. He promoted defensive analyst Greg Hudson to the role of defensive coordinator.
Hudson had previously served as defensive coordinator at Purdue, East Carolina and Minnesota. The defense has stabilized since he took over. Let’s look at the game-by-game stats from the four games under VanGorder and compare them to the six games under Hudson. First, VanGorder’s games…
Texas: 50 points, 517 yards
Nevada: 10 points, 300
Michigan State: 36 points, 501 yards
Duke: 38 points, 498 yards
Besides the game against overmatched Nevada, the Notre Dame defense couldn’t stop anybody. Remember, Texas is 5-5, Michigan State is 3-7 and Duke is 4-6, so it’s not like they were facing great competition.
Things steadily improved under the direction of Greg Hudson…
Syracuse: 33 points, 489 yards
NC State: 10 points, 198 yards
Stanford: 17 points, 296 yards
Miami: 27 points, 306 yards
Navy: 28 points, 368 yards
Army: 6 points, 242 yards
Those are much-improved numbers, but when you study it more closely, it’s hard to get a read on this Notre Dame defense since Hudson took over. The NC State game was played in a hurricane on a field with apparently no drainage system, Navy and Army are option offenses that don’t run a ton of plays, and Stanford is #107 in the country in points per game. The Irish have really only played two teams that put pressure on the defense in a traditional way since Hudson took over: Syracuse and Miami. They did well against the Hurricanes, and not so well against Syracuse.
Because there isn’t a lot of film on the Greg Hudson defense against traditional opponents, that makes this game a bit of an unknown, and the unknown can be scary. Sure, the Irish have a lot of freshmen in their secondary, but we can’t be sure exactly how Hudson will use them. My best guess is that he’ll implement quite a bit of the Duke and Georgia Tech game plans against the Hokies, but exactly how much can he trust his freshmen defensive backs in zone coverage?
Bad Weather: What Does It Mean?
Saturday’s high is forecasted at 41 degrees. Accuweather.com projects the “RealFeel” to be 25 degrees. There is a 73 percent chance of a rain/snow mix. The wind is projected to be blowing 18 miles per hour, with gusts up to 34 miles per hour. Not only that, but the temperature is going to steadily fall during the course of the game, which is a 3:30 kickoff and will end up in the dark.
The last time the Hokies played a bad weather game was against North Carolina, and the Hokies easily won the game 34-3. North Carolina turned the ball over multiple times, VT did a better job of protecting the football and the Hokies cashed in when they had scoring opportunities. They were much more prepared to play in a wet, windy game than the Tar Heels, and much of that credit goes to the Tech coaching staff.
This game is a bit different. Notre Dame is much better at running the football than North Carolina for a couple of reasons…
1: Unlike Larry Fedora, Brian Kelly actually chooses to try and establish a running game.
2: Notre Dame has a big, physical quarterback who can run.
Here are Notre Dame’s top four rushers…
RB Josh Adams (6-2, 220, So.): 128 carries, 653 yards, 5.1 ypc, 3 TDs
QB DeShone Kizer (6-4, 230, Jr.): 102 carries, 440 yards, 4.3 ypc, 7 TDs
RB Tarean Folston (5-9, 214, Sr.): 66 carries, 299 yards, 4.5 ypc, 2 TDs
RB Dexter Williams (5-11, 210, So.): 36 carries, 201 yards, 5.6 ypc, 3 TDs
Their efficiency ratings on both sides of the ball suggest that Notre Dame is better suited to a cold, wet game than Virginia Tech. Here are the Irish offensive rushing efficiency numbers…
Rushing S&P+: #44
Rushing Success Rate: #45
Rushing IsoPPP: #85
Opportunity Rate: #35
Power Success Rate: #4
Stuff Rate: #34
Now, for the defensive numbers…
Rushing S&P+: #24
Rushing Success Rate: #49
Rushing IsoPPP: #5
Opportunity Rate: #36
Power Success Rate: #40
Stuff Rate: #57
Those are good rushing efficiency numbers on both sides of the ball. Virginia Tech isn’t quite so good. Let’s start with Tech’s offense…
Rushing S&P+: #98
Rushing Success Rate: #106
Rushing IsoPPP: #63
Opportunity Rate: #42
Power Success Rate: #108
Stuff Rate: #106
Quite frankly, those are awful numbers. The defense has been much better, though they’ve been trending down the last three weeks…
Rushing S&P+: #38
Rushing Success Rate: #28
Rushing IsoPPP: #85
Opportunity Rate: #60
Power Success Rate: #6
Stuff Rate: #16
Those numbers are good, but consider the actual numbers since Tech’s defensive ends started dropping like flies…
Pitt: 180 rushing yards, 5.6 ypc
Duke: 227 yards, 5.0 ypc
Georgia Tech: 309 yards, 5.3 ypc
The Virginia Tech rushing defense appears to be done. If I were Brian Kelly, I’d pound the ball against Tech’s defensive front all day long and include a healthy dose of a running DeShone Kizer.
But will Kelly do that? In the 10-3 loss at NC State during Hurricane Matthew, he threw the ball a whopping 26 times with Kizer despite the fact that the game was close from start to finish, it was pouring rain, the wind was gusting and the NC State field didn’t drain very well. The Wolfpack limited themselves to 12 passes, played it safe and won the game. If Kelly learned anything from that game and he’s watched any Virginia Tech film from the last three weeks, he’ll come out with a game plan that attempts to pound the Tech defense with the running game from the opening snap.
Turnovers will obviously play a role in this game. As we covered in yesterday’s article, Virginia Tech is unbeaten against Power 5 teams when they don’t lose the turnover battle. Considering their apparent disadvantage on the ground in this game, they’ll probably need to win the turnover battle again on Saturday.
Notre Dame is 4-6, and Virginia Tech is 7-3. The Hokies are the better overall team, but sometimes football isn’t about who is the better overall team. It’s about matchups in each individual game, and it’s about turnovers. I’m not crazy enough to try and predict the outcome of the turnover battle, but I don’t like the matchups in this one. Let me paraphrase, just in case you skipped over the previous 1,800 words of this article…
1: Notre Dame’s weakness on defense is in the secondary, but that weakness is neutralized by the fact that throwing the ball is going to difficult in a cold, wet game, and the fact that Duke and Georgia Tech have shown defensive coordinators how to limit Virginia Tech’s passing game.
2: Notre Dame’s running game efficiency is better than Virginia Tech’s by a mile offensively. Defensively the teams are pretty even from an efficiency standpoint, but VT’s rushing defense is trending way down over the last three games.
3: This ties in with #2, but Notre Dame has a mobile quarterback in Kizer. Tech is 0-3 this season when allowing the opposing QB to rush for 100 yards. They nearly lost to Duke when Daniel Jones ran for 99 yards.
Throw in the fact that Notre Dame has to win this game to qualify for a bowl, and I just don’t have a good feeling about Saturday’s game.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Virginia Tech 20
Will Stewart’s Take: It’s November football, when the running game becomes more and more important as the weeks go by. And this isn’t a good running game matchup for the Hokies.
For the Hokies to win this game, in the projected weather conditions, I think two things are going to have to happen: (1) Virginia Tech is going to have to go against recent trends and establish a reliable tailback running game; and (2) Notre Dame is going to have to start slinging the ball around with the passing game, leading to incompletions and turnovers.
I could be wrong, of course. Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen might cook up a passing game plan targeted at Notre Dame’s relatively young secondary, and have some success executing it, despite the weather. If so, I’ll be impressed, and we’ll all move on happily. Turnovers, which can skew results faster than anything, might tip in the Hokies’ direction. Barring that, I just feel that Notre Dame’s size and proficiency with the traditional running game is a big advantage in a game at this point of the season.
I don’t mean to paint the Irish as a power running tour de force. They’re not. But at this point in the season, they’re better at it than the Hokies are.
The Irish can run effectively from both the tailback and QB position. The Hokies can run from the QB position, but haven’t been effective lately with the tailback rushing game. In the last three games, the Hokies have been outrushed in each game, and Tech’s quarterbacks have more rushing yards (262, after subtracting out sacks) than their running backs (192). The wide receivers have 91 yards rushing in the last three games, so the non-RB positions have 353 rushing yards and the RBs have just 192.
Notre Dame doesn’t hand the ball off to anyone other than tailbacks. Looking at their box scores and examining their leading rushers, you see the names Adams, Folston and Williams over and over, along with Kizer.
These teams are very similar in a lot of ways, when you examine the QB stats and WR stats (ND’s leading receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown, has almost identical yardage and TDs as Isaiah Ford), but when you start to look at the running game, they start to differ.
Turnovers and special teams can skew this one, but if this game tracks normally, I think the running game provides Notre Dame with a little separation.
Will’s Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Virginia Tech 24
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: I was hoping my first trip to Notre Dame wouldn’t be in the freezing rain, but oh well.
This game is huge for both teams — obviously Notre Dame needs to run the table to become bowl eligible, while Virginia Tech needs to find some momentum before facing in-state rival Virginia for the ACC Coastal Division title. If the Hokies come out on Saturday with another sloppy, deflating performance, things might not bode well for two weeks from now.
Kizer is a deadly passer and can get yards on the ground, but I’m not sure I see Kelly exploiting the quarterback run as much as he should. Virginia Tech’s defense has consistently shown an inability to stop mobile quarterbacks, but Kelly might be too prideful to muck it up with his star, soon-to-be NFL quarterback.
Virginia Tech’s inability to establish a consistent ground threat is the most worrisome part of this game, if you’re a Tech fan. The offensive line doesn’t generate much push up front and your leading ball carrier in attempts is your banged-up quarterback. I know Fuente and Cornelsen like to spread the carries, but at some point you have to run the ball from the backfield, or suffer the consequences.
The Hokies have lost three games this season. In the previous two losses, Virginia Tech went on three-game winning streaks and ticked off some impressive victories. A victory at Notre Dame in the chilly, wet Midwest air would be equally impressive. I’m going to differ with my colleagues here and predict a slim Virginia Tech win, with the defense making a stop late.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Notre Dame 23