Reeling from a 30-20 defeat to Georgia Tech at home, Virginia Tech finds no solace in this week’s opponent — Notre Dame.
Sure, Notre Dame is 4-6 this season and must win out in order to become bowl eligible. Sure, Notre Dame has lost to a sub-standard Michigan State team, and Navy. But despite their poor season, the Hokies are taking the Fighting Irish very seriously.
“When you watch them on film, you have a hard time believing that’s a 4-6 football team, I can tell you that much,” said Head Coach Justin Fuente.
Virginia Tech’s primary concern will be stopping Notre Dame’s talented, explosive offense. The Fighting Irish score over 31 points per game and quarterback DeShone Kizer has thrown for 22 touchdowns and 2,470 yards, while rushing for 440 yards and another seven touchdowns.
“Physical, stature, the ability,” Foster said of Kizer. “He can throw the ball, spin it really good. He can run, he’s their second-leading rusher. Just a big, dynamic guy that you see, I think, getting better and better every week he plays.”
There’s a reason that Kizer is projected to be one of the top quarterbacks drafted in next year’s NFL Draft.
“A guy that’s a dual-threat, a guy that can run some of the zone read powers, the spread run game that you’re seeing today in the game,” cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell said. “Yet, you look at their passing game, and the guy has the arm strength to throw the 20-yard comeback and have accuracy on the deep ball. He’s a complete guy.”
Kizer has plenty of weapons. Equanimeous St. Brown leads the team in receiving with 777 yards and eight touchdowns and has proven himself to be a threat in the vertical passing game. The Fighting Irish sport three more receivers with at least 20 catches, who all average over 12 yards per reception and have combined for nine receiving touchdowns.
Mitchell credited the Notre Dame receiving corps, but pointed out that Virginia Tech has played multiple elite-level receivers this season, including Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo and East Carolina’s Zay Jones.
“Theyre not going to be any more posing than say Miami, or the No. 2 receiver in the nation,” Mitchell said. “The No. 1 receiver in the nation right now is the kid from East Carolina (Zay Jones). (St. Brown) is a very good football player. I mean, we’ve seen very good football players. What you’re going to see from Notre Dame is that they have depth. They can roll six guys in there and they’re all going to have good stature, good speed, lateral quickness and good ball skills.”
“They like to air it out a lot,” said Brandon Facyson. “They have talent at every position, but we do too.”
Notre Dame also runs the ball efficiently. Leading rusher Josh Adams averages over 5 yards per carry, while backups Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams average 4.5 yards and 5.6 yards per carry, respectively.
“They’ve got about three or four guys like him on this team,” Foster said. “I mean, you’re talking about ‘5-star U’ man. They’ve been the top two or three recruiting class for the last 50 years, at least for sure how long they’ve been rating recruiting classes. They’ve got those kinds of guys and our corners are going to have to play really well. They do a lot of deep shots, they run a lot of deep comebacks, run some double moves, so we’re going to have to do a good job on the perimeter.”
Offense facing uncertainty with new Notre Dame coordinator
Offensively, gameplanning for Notre Dame has been a bit tricky. Since Greg Hudson took over the defensive coordinator role after the Duke loss, Notre Dame has played an “air raid”, spread offense in Syracuse, NC State in the middle of a hurricane, the old-school scheme of Stanford and for the last two weeks, triple option teams Army and Navy.
“The Army and Navy offense vs. the Notre Dame defense is basically null and void to us,” Fuente said. “We don’t even mess with it.”
Offensive Coordinator Brad Cornelsen said that since Hudson took over the role, the defense schematically hasn’t changed much.
“They were pretty multiple before and they’re still pretty multiple in what they’re doing, between odd and even fronts, different blitzes, different coverages,” Cornelsen said. “There is a little bit of difference, it’s not huge. I think when you start digging into the actual tendencies of the situations, you try to figure out what this guy likes in certain situations, but their overall playbook, what they’re choosing from to call, there is still quite a bit they’re doing that they did before.”
Fuente has noted multiple times this weeks that the passion-level for Notre Dame’s defense has increased in recent weeks. Since Notre Dame’s 50-33 win over Syracuse, the Fighting Irish defense has allowed just 19.4 points per game.
“They’ve got players, Coach Kelly has those guys playing hard,” Fuente said. “They’re very sound scheme-wise.”
“They have dudes,” said Jerod Evans. “Athletic, fast, big, strong, just like Miami. They have the same type of athletes on that side of the ball.”
The offense will be trying to get out of their publicized struggles in the last two games. Evans said that there’s been a similar vibe around the team this week as there was after the team’s previous losses to Tennessee and Syracuse. Virginia Tech went on three-game win streaks after both of those losses.
“It’s more frustration than anything because we feel like we passed that part of the season as a group, as a unit to not keep going through these lulls,” Evans said. “It’s more frustration than anything.”