No. 6 Notre Dame Visits Blacksburg

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Virginia Tech will face a very good Notre Dame team this Saturday. (2016 file photo by Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech hosts No. 6 Notre Dame in a Saturday night showdown from Lane Stadium. The Irish are 5-0 on the season, and they appear to be a team that could legitimately contend for a spot in the College Football Playoffs.

Thanks to a quarterback change, a solid running game and a dominant defense, the Irish are unbeaten. A good quarterback, a good running game and a great defense can a take a team very far, and it appears Notre Dame is balanced in all phases this year. This could be Brian Kelly’s best team since 2012, when the Irish made it to the National Championship Game.

Notre Dame began the year sluggish on offense, but a change at quarterback transformed the offense overnight. Let’s begin our look at the Irish with new starting quarterback Ian Book.

Ian Book Takes Over

Through the first three games of the season, Notre Dame failed to score more than 24 points with Brandon Wimbush (6-2, 222, r-Jr.) as their starting quarterback. He was completing just 55.3% of his passes, with one touchdown and four interceptions. Here were Notre Dame’s results in those three games…

vs. Michigan: 24-17 W
vs. Ball State: 24-16 W
vs. Vanderbilt: 22-17 W

The Irish were perhaps a bit fortunate to get by Michigan with Wimbush as quarterback, when you consider the fact that they barely got by Ball State and Vanderbilt.

That’s when Brian Kelly decided to make a change. Ian Book (6-0, 203, r-So.) became Notre Dame’s starter at Wake Forest, and since then the Irish offense has been very difficult to stop. Here are Book’s numbers in those two games…

Wake Forest: 25-of-34 for 325 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 10 carries, 43 yards, 3 TDs
Stanford: 24-of-33, 278 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 15 carries, 47 yards

Book has been a much more efficient quarterback than Wimbush. Book was a middle-of-the-road three-star prospect, whereas Wimbush was a top 100 player who was pursued by many major programs, including Virginia Tech. Things didn’t quite work out as most people expected. Under Wimbush, Notre Dame was barely beating Ball State and Vanderbilt. With Book, they beat a then-top 10 Stanford team 38-17 (though that game was closer than the final score indicated…Notre Dame led by just seven with under 10 minutes remaining).

Book started one game last year, a win over North Carolina. He also came off the bench in the Citrus Bowl to rally the Irish past LSU, going 14-of-19 for 164 yards with two fourth quarterback touchdown passes. Bud Foster has four games of film to study, but it’s obvious by now that Book is a good player, despite his measureables.

It would be inaccurate to describe Book as a great runner in the read option, but he’s got nimble feet, and he can extend plays that lead to good gains through the air as well as on the ground. His size and his overall ability will remind you a lot of former Virginia Tech starting quarterback Michael Brewer, with the big difference being that Book has a good running game to fall back on, and Brewer did not.

The Notre Dame Running Game

The Notre Dame running game was able to pick up the slack when the passing game was struggling early in the season. The Irish are averaging 201.4 yards per game (No. 44 in the country) on the ground, and 4.4 yards per carry. They’ve done it without one dominant player, though they got a boost from Dexter Williams (5-11, 215, Sr.) this past weekend.

Williams sat out the first four games of the season, though the school never officially announced a suspension. He returned with a bang last weekend against Stanford, running for 161 yards on just 21 carries (7.7 ypc). Williams has never played a major role in the Notre Dame running game in the past. Here are his year-by-year stats…

Freshman: 21 carries, 81 yards, 3.9 ypc, 1 TD
Sophomore: 39 carries, 200 yards, 5.1 ypc, 3, TDs
Junior: 39 carries, 360 yards, 9.2 ypc, 4 TDs

The 21 carries he got against Stanford were probably unexpected by the Cardinal coaches. Williams has never been a regular part of the running rotation, though his yards per carry average has been great over the last two years.

Before Saturday’s game against Stanford, Notre Dame was using two primary tailbacks…

Tony Jones, Jr. (5-11, 220, r-So.): 56 carries, 303 yards, 5.4 ypc, 3 TDs
Jafar Amstrong (6-1, 218, r-Fr.): 47 carries, 245 yards, 5.2 ypc, 5 TDs

Armstrong missed the Stanford game with a knee infection, and he is not listed on the Notre Dame depth chart leading up to Saturday’s contest. At this point, the best guess is that the Irish will go with Jones and Williams as their primary ball carriers against the Hokies. They are both very capable players.

Justin Fuente Virginia Tech Brian Kelly
(2016 file photo by Ivan Morozov)

The Offensive Line

The offensive line suffered a big blow by an injury sustained at guard during the Stanford game. Alex Bars injured his knee, and he’ll be out for the season. It’s a tough loss for the Irish, as Bars was considered Notre Dame’s most consistent offensive player through the first five games of the season. Still, they’ll be replacing him with veteran Trevor Ruhland (6-4, 295, r-Jr.), who made his first career start at the other guard spot the previous week at Wake Forest.

Here’s how the Notre Dame offensive line is expected to look…

LT Liam Eichenberg: 6-6, 308, r-So.
LG Trevor Ruhland: 6-4, 295, r-Jr.
C Sam Mustipher: 6-3, 306, r-Sr.
RG Tommy Kraemer: 6-6, 316, r-So.
RT Robert Hainsey: 6-5, 295, So.

Ruhland is a new starter, though he is a fourth-year player. Kraemer may or may not be 100%. The Hokies might have an advantage on the right side with defensive end Houshun Gaines going up against true sophomore Robert Hainsey, though Gaines likely isn’t getting much practice time this week due to the death of his mother.

Notre Dame is least experienced at the tackle spots. Here are the career starts for each projected starter…

LT Eichenberger: 5
LG Ruhland: 1
C Mustipher: 30
RG Kraemer: 16
RT Hainsey: 5

Their strength is on the inside with Mustipher and Kraemer, but we aren’t quite sure how the other three players will perform. This group has been very good this season, but we don’t know how they’ll perform without Bars.

A Dominant Defensive Front

My main recollection of last year’s Virginia Tech-Clemson game is that the Hokies played pretty well, and better than most teams played against the Tigers. However, Tech really had no chance to win the game because Clemson started four NFL players on the defensive line. That is probably the best defensive line the Hokies have faced since they played at LSU in 2007, or against Nebraska in 2009.

Notre Dame’s defensive line isn’t quite at that level, but they aren’t as far away as you might think, and it’s possible that all four of their starters will be drafted. It all starts on the inside with defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (6-7, 305, Sr.). Tillery had four sacks last week against Stanford. Four sacks these days is rare for a great defensive end, much less a defensive tackle.

For the season, Tiller has 7.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks, and he’s just one of a number of players who can cause problems for the Hokies. Here’s a look at the talent level of all four starters on the defensive line.

DE Daelin Hayes (6-4, 265, Jr.): No. 12 DE in the 2020 draft by NFL Draft Scout
DT Jerry Tiller (6-7, 305, Sr.): No. 3 DT in the 2019 draft
NG Jonathan Bonner (6-4, 295, r-Sr.): No. 18 DT in the 2019 draft
DE Khalid Kareem (6-4, 265, Jr.): No. 7 DE in the 2020 draft

Playing good defense starts up front, and the Irish have one of the most talented defensive lines in college football.

It doesn’t stop with the defensive line, either. Here are the same numbers for Notre Dame’s linebackers…

LB Te’Von Coney (6-1, 240, Sr.): No. 5 ILB in the 2019 draft
LB Drue Tranquill (6-2, 235, r-Sr.): No. 14 OLB in the 2019 draft

Notre Dame’s front six is filled with juniors and seniors, and it’s a very real possibility that all six players will be on NFL rosters two years from now.

Despite that, the Irish have been good, but not dominant defensively. They dominated Stanford and future NFL running back Bryce Love last week, surrendering just 229 total yards and 55 rushing yards. However, Vanderbilt had 420 yards against them, while a below average Wake Forest team with a freshman quarterback had 398 yards and scored 27 points. Still, Wake is the only team to break the 20 point barrier against Notre Dame this season. I expect Notre Dame’s defense will be ready to play on Saturday night.

The Secondary

Notre Dame is also a talented football team in the secondary. That especially applies to the cornerback position.

CB Troy Pride, Jr. (5-11, 190, Jr.): No. 9 CB in the 2020 draft
CB Julian Love (5-11, 193, Jr.): No. 2 CB in the 2020 draft

Love is considered to be one of the best cornerbacks in the country. Pride is a former Virginia Tech commit (class of 2016) who would be starting for the Hokies had he not decommitted due to uncertainties surrounding Tech’s head coaching situation towards the end of the 2015 season.

Here are the safeties…

ROV Asmar Bilal (6-2, 225, r-Jr.): No. 6 OLB in the 2020 draft
FS Alohi Gilman (5-10, 202, r-So.): Unranked
SS Jalen Elliott (6-0, 205, Jr.): No. 8 SS in the 2020 draft

Gilman would be considered the weakness of the defense. He’s a transfer from the Naval Academy. A smart player, Gilman is more limited athletically than the rest of Notre Dame’s defense.

Overall, Notre Dame’s secondary is talented, and we could see four of the five starters in the NFL at some point. This could be the most talented defense the Hokies face this season, with Miami being the only real competition.

Special Teams: Advantage, Hokies

On paper, Virginia Tech holds a big advantage on special teams. They’ll need that to translate to the field on Saturday night and win the battle of hidden yardage.

Here are the Hokies by the numbers…

FG Value: No. 15
Punt Efficiency: No. 1
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 1
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 24
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 84

All Hail Shibest.

Notre Dame’s special teams numbers are not nearly as impressive.

FG Value: No. 63
Punt Efficiency: No. 45
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 37
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 86
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 84

The Irish haven’t been bad on special teams, but they certainly haven’t been as good as Virginia Tech.

Final Thoughts on Virginia Tech-Notre Dame

I’ve seen people throwing around a bunch of numbers that I believe will have no bearing on this game. For example, the fact that Virginia Tech hasn’t beaten a top 25 team at home since Miami in 2009 will have absolutely no impact on Saturday night’s game. The fact that the Irish are 1-9 in true road games against ranked opponents since 2013 is also irrelevant. Saturday night’s game will come down to the current Notre Dame players and coaches against the current Virginia Tech players and coaches. All that other stuff is meaningless.

This is a week that Virginia Tech fans have been waiting for for a long time. If you’d like to get even more fired up, then check out this quote.

Personally, I like it. In this day and age where players are trained what to say, the game has lost some of its personality, in my opinion. Colorful quotes like that bring back the personality that the game has been lacking, and it makes things more interesting. We’ve heard that the quote is prominently posted inside the Merryman Center today. Naturally, I hope he eats his words.

I’m doubtful that he will, though. The Hokies are 2-0 this year when Will and I have picked against them. I was really close to picking Tech against Florida State, and fairly close to picking them against Duke as well. But I didn’t. They won both games. This time however, there’s no part of me that is willing to pick the Hokies. I believe Notre Dame is the best team they’ll face all year, and that the Irish are better at almost every spot on the field.

When I look at Notre Dame’s balance on offense, and their dominance in the trenches on defense, I think it’s going to be very tough for the Hokies to win. To do so, I believe they’ll have to play their best game of Justin Fuente’s 2+ years as head coach. I think they’ll be competitive, but Notre Dame’s talent and superior experience will keep them at arm’s length, and by the end of the game we’ll know the Irish are just flat out better. I think it will be pretty similar to the Clemson game last season, though the Hokies won’t trail by 21 at any point. Tech is probably one year’s worth of experience away from standing a good chance to win a game like this.

Chris’s Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Virginia Tech 20

Will Stewart’s Take: If you’ve been paying attention, then you know my picks this year have been off. I predicted the William & Mary game correctly, but who didn’t? Other than that, I’m 0-3.

So it behooves me to pick Notre Dame to win, right? Why change now?

This is one of those games that looks like an uphill battle. If both teams play their typical game, it’ll likely go Notre Dame’s way, so the Hokies are going to have to get some breaks on special teams, or via the turnover, or perhaps from a trick play or two. (Justin Fuente hasn’t been shy about trying trick plays in big games.)

The problem with hoping for turnovers is that Notre Dame has only turned it over five times this year — once per game. The Hokies have only forced eight turnovers, a respectable number that ranks No. 39 in the nation, but doesn’t indicate a ball-hawking defense that is pressuring opponents. A turnover advantage could happen, because turnovers tend to be random, but there’s nothing to indicate that it will.

As for special teams, the Hokies’ overall high ranking is a field-position ranking, created by opponents not being able to return kickoffs (two returns for 45 yards) or punts (four returns for zero yards). It’s not predicated on the Hokies being explosive in the return game. Tech ranks No. 92 in the nation in punt returns and No. 23 in kickoff returns (averaging just 25 yards per return).

So where are the big plays going to come from? Your guess is as good as mine.

I think the Hokies will play a solid game, but it’ll be death by a thousand tiny cuts, much like the Clemson game last year, where the Tigers controlled it from start to finish but never really blew Tech out.

The recipe for Virginia Tech is: Don’t turn it over. Keep Notre Dame in front of you. Keep stifling the opposition with field position. Create a few breaks along the way, and then make the plays that win it.

One last thing: I like the way everyone is blowing sunshine up Notre Dame’s butt this week, talking about them being on track to make the College Football Playoff, and I like how everyone says it’s all coming together for them, and how Ian Book can do no wrong. That can only benefit the Hokies. Virginia Tech has already been humbled, by their trip to ODU. Notre Dame hasn’t.

Still, given my track record this year, I’m not going to pick the Hokies to win (wink-wink). Yesterday in our podcast, I picked Notre Dame 35-27, but the Notre Dame defense is tougher than that, and I’m going to bank on the Hokies playing a solid game and not making many mistakes, just being outgunned.

Will’s Prediction (here’s to going 1-4 with my picks): Notre Dame 27, Virginia Tech 17

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29 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I will be there screaming and jumping and trying to make Lane as difficult on the Irish as I can. If the effort is there the Hokies can win. Let’s Go!!!

  2. Booooooooooooo!!!! I think the night will be right for an upset. I have “high hopes.” GO HOKIES!!!!!

  3. Little crap like their LT talking stuff fires a player up. I’d imagine the boys are fired up even more after reading that! Beat the man in front of you!

  4. Wondering if any of you think the game would be closer or more of a blowout by ND if JJ was at QB ??

    1. Who knows, but thought through that, one could make a case for safe, conservative: no mistakes but even that sounds like playing for a respectable loss.

      It’s probably a little too early to declare Willis a gunslinger, 500 yards, 5 TD, 3 ints… (does that win you the game? Maybe not…) but I think Fuente will even want him to play it real safe. sure, take a few risks or it’ll be A) above play for a respectable loss.

      So anyway, correct answer is “we don’t have a choice” so think we have more of a chance to win, but also more of a chance that things go downhill, high(er) risk some chance of winning, but also of getting blown out.

  5. We all know now that anything can in CFB. Preparation, energy and our environment will make this much closer than most think! The Irish can’t prepare for a raucous night game at Lane Stadium. It will be fun!! Go Hokies!!!

  6. Sealing the edge by H-back, #29 Keene, could be a difference maker in this game as can see Cornelsen open up the playbook further and start rolling Ryan out on passes, which will open up some quick burts/hand-offs outside, furthermore, predict RB Steven People provides that extra one/two secs with his blocking for VT; allowing QB Willis to make those throws down the field.

    Let’s Go…Hokies!!!
    Beat Notre Dame

  7. did not notice any WR info. IB or BW have to be throwing to someone – – IB has 603 yards and 6 TDs in the last two games.

    Go Hokies! . . . . goal: 1 – 0

  8. I was looking for a comment from Chris about the size of their DB’s vs our receivers. I guess he is saying with their talent, size is not a factor?

  9. if the players on that defense are that good, and they all get drafted….I can’t see how the Hokies will score more than 13. if we are going to play the what if game then I would predict out rover, safety, one corner, one DT and one DE and whip could be drafted with a maybe at backer (dax). willis, one receiver, one or two oline and a punter are all potential draft picks. 23-21 Hokies, gotta find a way.

  10. Can Willis avoid mistakes under pressure from a good d-line? I say he can because our line is much improved and our receivers get separation.

    23-21 win with both teams playing tight early and VT getting field goals off good field position.

    1. All hands on deck. We’ll be rotating lines as well as most other positions. As we will need to.

  11. Thank you Chris and Will, you just sealed the victory for Virginia Tech! The best defense is the offense on the field and scoring. Willis fits the Fuente model of fast pace and moving the ball. He is capable of throwing mid to long ranges passes which will open up the ground game.

  12. Hoping it’s a great game. Prime time in BBurg, sorry I can’t make it in person. GO HOKIES!

  13. A long-ball guy is a Bud Foster defense killer; and, Book isn’t a long-ball guy. For ND’s offense to be effective, he’s going to have to win battles with his feet. If the Hokie defense is crisp tackling, then that will be good. The effort we saw against FSU and Duke can win this game.

    Fuente will find a way to attack the ND defense. Hopefully, they won’t be too conservative, but also not stupid, like going for it on 4th instead of taking the points.

  14. I think we would have had a better shot at Clemson if Evans hadn’t got hurt but I think it comes down to QB play Sat and I think Willis is going to surprise again. We may still lose but it will be a good game
    Nice article, Chris

  15. CC your first paragraph under Final Thoughts could be said about 99.9% of ESPNs stats lol. so true. stats from over 2 years ago in college are irrelevant!

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