Game Preview: Virginia Tech Faces Big Test at Notre Dame

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Notre Dame
Notre Dame came into Lane Stadium and silenced Virginia Tech last year with a 45-23 win. (Ivan Morozov)
  • Virginia Tech at No. 16 Notre Dame: 2:30 PM, NBC
  • Spread: Notre Dame -17.5, per VegasInsider
  • Virginia Tech-ND roster cards: Click here
  • Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
  • South Bend weather: Click here
  • Gameday information: Click here
  • Tickets from StubHub: 

“This is about our football team getting back to their identity and the standards that have gotten them to this point.  We got away from it.  It’s time to get back to it.”

That’s what Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in his Monday press conference.  He spent much of the press conference fielding questions about quarterback Ian Book, but again and again he brought up the point that the Irish lost their toughness and their physicality in their 45-14 loss to Michigan on Saturday night, and he vowed that they would get it back this week.

As you’ll see when you read the rest of this article, there are questions surrounding the Notre Dame offense not just against Michigan, but against just about every Power 5 opponent they’ve faced.  However, their defense is quite good, and it would not be surprising to see a much more inspired effort from that unit on Saturday afternoon. For Virginia Tech, it probably doesn’t matter so much that Notre Dame lost to Michigan, but it’s more about how they lost to Michigan.


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We can surely expect to see a better effort from the Irish than we saw on Saturday, but the team still has question marks.  Let’s take a closer look at Notre Dame on both sides of the ball.

(As a side note, Kelly is a typical football coach.  He spent the first five minutes of his press conference talking about Virginia Tech, and that’s clearly what he wanted to focus on, but over the next 24 minutes no reporter asked him one single question about the Hokies.)

The Notre Dame Offense 

On paper, the Notre Dame offense is good, but it has dropped off dramatically against Power 5 teams.

Scoring offense: No. 29 overall, No. 50 against Power 5 teams
Total offense: No. 62 overall, No. 76 against Power 5 teams

The Irish have been impressive at times, but something hasn’t been clicking on the offensive side of the ball against Power 5 competition, with the exception of a 30-27 win over a USC team whose defense ranks No. 98 in the country.  Notre Dame is averaging only 343.8 yards per game against Power 5 defenses. They even struggled a bit against Louisville and their No. 103 ranked defense in the season opener.

To put that into perspective, here’s how the Notre Dame offense has compared to Pitt, UVA, Miami and Georgia Tech against Power 5 opponents.  I’m using those four teams because most of you are probably familiar with how they have struggled on offense this season.

Miami: No. 63, 363.7 yards per game
Notre Dame: No. 76, 343.8 yards per game
Pitt: No. 77, 339 yards per game
GT: No. 79, 334.8 yards per game
UVA: No. 80, 333.8 yards per game

The Irish have been better than three of those four teams, but only marginally.  Much of their overall offensive numbers have been due to success against Bowling Green (52-0) and New Mexico (66-14).  They seem capable, but something just hasn’t been clicking.  It reached its low point this past weekend in Ann Arbor when the offense totaled only 180 yards.

Ian Book (Ivan Morozov)

Quarterback Ian Book (6-0, 212, Sr.) resurrected the Notre Dame offense last season, and he has a very impressive 15-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season.  However, some of his numbers are down.  His completion percentage has dropped from 68.2% last season to just 59.2% this year.  He averaged 8.4 yards per attempt last season, but just 7.6 this year.

Book is a capable runner, though he’s more of a scrambler type who will take what the defense gives him.  He won’t juke guys, or break tackles, but he will take what is there.  He is Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher this year with 201 yards.  Besides Book and tailback Tony Jones, Jr. (5-11, 224, Jr.), no Irish player has more than 24 carries, which shows that their running back depth is not great. 

Book’s struggles have been a major cause of concern, and a quick visit to various Notre Dame message boards have been calling for him to be benched. Perhaps it was the loss of wide receiver Miles Boykin that has hurt Book and the Irish offense more than anything.  Boykin was a third-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens, and he’s started six games thus far in his young NFL career. 

Tailback Jones has been the only consistent rushing threat for the Irish with 88 carries for 571 yards (6.5 ypc) and four touchdowns.  He’s a big, physical runner who can break tackles.  However, he came out of the Michigan game after just eight carries, and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly indicated that Jones has cartilage damage to his ribs.  If he can’t play against the Hokies, or even if he weren’t 100%, it would be a big boost to Virginia Tech.  Kelly said that Jones was expected to practice on Tuesday.

Caleb Farley Virginia Tech
Caleb Farley is once again important to Virginia Tech’s hopes for a win. (Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech’s cornerbacks have held up extremely well against outside receivers this year, and it’s Notre Dame’s tight end and slot receiver that worry me heading into this game.  Cole Kmet (6-6, 250, Jr.) is a very good player, and he has 23 catches for 290 yards and four touchdowns this season.  Slot receiver Chris Finke (5-11, 184, GS) has 15 catches for 184 yards, and after seeing what UNC slot receiver Dazz Newsome did to the Hokies last week, Finke has to be considered a concern.  Outside receiver Chase Claypool (6-4, 229, Sr.) is Notre Dame’s top receiver with 24 catches, but he’s going head-to-head with Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller, who are major strengths of this Tech team.

On the whole, I believe this matchup is a better one for the Hokies than North Carolina was two weeks ago.

The Notre Dame Defense

The defensive side of the ball is where the Irish stand out, perhaps not statistically because they’ve played some good offensive teams, but they have a lot of talent and experience on that side of the ball. 

From an experience standpoint, I’ll use this example.  Virginia Tech plays one senior on their entire defense.  Notre Dame plays four…at defensive end.  This will be one of the most experienced and veteran defenses that the Hokies will face this season, and before we get into that defensive end unit, let’s take a look at a couple of names that may be familiar to you.

CB Troy Pride (6-0, 194, Sr.) was once committed to Virginia Tech, but decommitted less than two weeks after Frank Beamer announced his retirement.  He was polite and respectful with his announcement, but it was a big loss for the Hokies.

 

Pride has developed into a very good player for the Irish, and he’s one of the fastest cornerbacks in the country. 

Strong safety Jalen Elliott (6-1, 210, Sr.) is a Richmond-area player from LC Bird High School that the Hokies flat out missed on.  He was also a member of the 2016 class, like Pride, so that was a difficult time to recruit for the Hokies because of coaching uncertainty.  However, both of Elliott’s parents attended Virginia Tech, and had been taking him to Blacksburg his whole life.  He would likely be Tech’s starting rover right now.

Elliott and Pride arguably haven’t been as good this year as they were a year ago, but their losses certainly hurt the Hokies on the defensive side of the ball.  Besides those two players, keep an eye on Notre Dame’s defensive ends.

“If you look at their team across the board, they seem to be an older, developed team, particularly on the defensive front where they can certainly rush the passer and have been very good against the run,” Justin Fuente said. 

He’s right.  The two starters to keep an eye on are Julian Okwara (6-4, 248, Sr.) and Khalid Kareem (6-4, 265, Sr.).  Okwara has five tackles for loss and four sacks, while Kareem has 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.  It doesn’t stop with the starters, either.  Jamir Jones (6-3, 255, Sr.) has five tackles for loss and four sacks, and Adetokunbo Ogungeko (6-4, 253, Sr.) has 1.5 tackles for loss.  All four of those senior defensive ends will provide a major challenge for Virginia Tech’s offensive line.

Still, the defensive line isn’t as dominant as it was a year ago with first round pick and current LA Charger Jerry Tillery anchoring the inside.  They rank No. 46 overall in total defense, allowing 359.1 yards per game, though they are No. 40 overall (384.6 yards per game) against Power 5 offenses.

It’s against the run, surprisingly, where the Irish have struggled a bit.  Here are their numbers against Power 5 competition…

Yards per game: 175.8, No. 71 nationally
Yards per rush: 4.37, No. 58 nationally

The Notre Dame defense that we saw against Georgia in September (152 rushing yards, 339 total yards) apparently isn’t as good as the one we’ve seen in their other games against Power 5 competition.

Hendon Hooker Virginia Tech
Hendon Hooker and the Hokies will look to move it on the ground in South Bend. (Ivan Morozov)

The key for the Hokies will be getting a running game going.  Hendon Hooker has been very effective through the air when Tech’s running game has been good, but we don’t know how he would look with no running game.

Virginia Tech-Notre Dame Final Thoughts 

Brian Kelly mentioned in his Monday press conference that he felt like the Irish had lost their identity against Michigan.  He felt they weren’t tough enough.  I’m guessing they’ll get back to playing well defensively against the Hokies, but I’m just not sure that their offense is good enough in general.  They are better than they showed against Michigan, but they aren’t dynamic, and they haven’t been putting up good numbers against teams with a pulse. 

I don’t quite know what to make of Notre Dame.  I watched nearly all of their game against Georgia – a close loss on the road – and came away thinking that they were a legit playoff contender.  They were very impressive that game, especially defensively.  However, I haven’t been quite as impressed with their other performances.  They didn’t put away a solid, but not great, USC team until late.  And considering their advantages up front against UVA, I don’t feel like they dominated that game like they should have.

Outside of a 52-0 hammering of a bad Bowling Green team, here’s the total yardage comparison in each of Notre Dame’s games since they lost to Georgia…

Virginia: UVA 338 yards, Notre Dame 322 yards
USC: Notre Dame 476 yards, USC 444 yards
Michigan: Michigan 437 yards, Notre Dame 180 yards
Average: Notre Dame 326 yards, Opponents 406.3 yards

I think sports fans and sports writers view things through a lens based on what they’ve seen.  For example, I didn’t watch the Notre Dame-Michigan game, but I watched them go toe-to-toe with Georgia, so I assumed they were a definite top 10 team, perhaps even top five.  However, if you didn’t see the Georgia game and just watched their game against Michigan, you’d probably think that they shouldn’t even be ranked considering the Wolverines haven’t set the world on fire at times this year.

As always, the truth is somewhere in between.  The way I see it, I overestimated the Irish after their 23-17 road loss to Georgia, but if you are judging them based on the Michigan game, you’re badly underestimating them. 

Still, this is a very experienced Notre Dame football team with lots of upperclassmen.  Virginia Tech starts just one senior, and they start a ton of first- or second-year players.  It’s hard to pick the Hokies to win this one, just based on experience.  And while we know that Hendon Hooker is back practicing, is he definitely 100%?  Justin Fuente is the type of coach who isn’t afraid to use some gamey tactics in his weekly “injury report”, if that’s what you want to call it.

Based on how the Irish have played against the last three opponents they’ve played with a pulse, I don’t quite see them beating Tech by 17 or 17.5, which is where Vegas has set the line as of the time of this writing.  The Irish just haven’t had the look of a team that is going to blow out anybody. But a win is a win, and a loss is a loss, and it doesn’t matter how you win or how you lose. 

I’m making the trip to South Bend this time around, and though I’m expecting a pretty good game, some of the recent results in college football make me realize that our predictions section in our game previews is meaningless. Outside of biased Illinois fans, who would have picked the Illini to beat Wisconsin?  Or Kansas State to beat Oklahoma?  Or Michigan to crush Notre Dame?  Or Duke to hammer the Hokies?  Or Tech to beat Miami the week after getting hammered by Duke?  I guess college football is sort of like the old saying that the only consistent thing is inconsistency.

Your guess is as good as mine.  I said after the Miami game that the rest of the season had just two guarantees – a win over Rhode Island and a loss to Notre Dame – but I’m not so sure anymore.  I’m going with Notre Dame in a close one, though I’d love to write my column from the Chicago airport on Sunday talking about a win.  Just looking at the numbers, and seeing how the Irish have struggled on offense and against the run, I feel a lot better.  Here’s to lots and lots of 3-tight end formations on Saturday.

Chris’s Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Virginia Tech 24

Will Stewart’s Take: In 2016, Virginia Tech beat Notre Dame in South Bend 34-31 in a come-from-behind affair. I looked at the roster card for that game and found that Notre Dame started eight seniors/grad students, seven juniors, four sophomores, and three freshmen. The Hokies started six seniors, eight juniors, six sophomores, and just one freshman.

This year, Notre Dame will start 12 seniors/grad students, seven juniors, three sophomores, and zero freshmen. Virginia Tech will start one senior, eight juniors, 10 sophomores, and three freshmen. Put another way, Notre Dame starts three freshman/sophomores, VT starts 13.

In 2016, the experience levels of the teams were fairly balanced, and in 2019, they aren’t.

I think that will be the difference in the game. While I admit I don’t know a lot about the Irish, it feels to me as if the two teams are more or less even in talent level, with both squads having strong spots and weak spots. If the Hokies had been baking in the oven a couple more seasons, I’d really like this matchup, but that’s not the case. Just look at the quarterback experience: Ian Book has played in 27 games and thrown 585 passes; Hendon Hooker has played in eight games and thrown 61 passes.

Given everything Chris has laid out here, a Virginia Tech victory wouldn’t surprise me in the least, especially if turnovers and/or special teams go the Hokies’ way. But the more likely outcome is that an experienced, senior-laden Notre Dame squad will win over a Virginia Tech team that has some talent but is still finding its way.

Will’s Prediction: Notre Dame 34, Virginia Tech 24

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16 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I see a pattern developing here. Chris picks our opponent and Will follows suit just like the last two opponents. I hope that the hokies can make it three in a row. Two out of three is not bad but three consecutive wins will be awesome. Notre Dame is overrated. It will be a dogfight, pardon the analogy. Go hokies!

  2. I think rain and wind favors ND. We have a speed advantage with our O vs their D skill guys. Sometimes, the rain will neutralize that. Also, I think a wet field could make us very cautious with Hendon. I think with the right conditions there is a significant opportunity that Hendon has a coming out party for the good guys on a national stage.

  3. And unlike last year, if one of our DB’s has a tailor made pick 6 and doesn’t fall on his face, we have a great shot at winning. If we play a clean game, we are in great shape to win this game.

  4. My favorite part of this preview “Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller, who are major strengths of this Tech team.” Amazing that is true given our CB debacle last year.

    My take is that VT is on the upswing and ND is as always overrated. Plus, I’m unimpressed with Ian Book. He has a below average arm and no playmakers to stretch the field anyway.

    I’m betting we try to pound them on offense to test their resolve after their big loss and I hope it works.

    If not, maybe Ryan Willis can get some love back from our fans if Hendon can’t go and we fall behind. Wouldn’t that be an interesting outcome?

  5. “This is about our football team getting back to their identity and the standards that have gotten them to this point. We got away from it. It’s time to get back to it.”
    When I saw this I thought it was a quote from Fuente…

  6. For a team that is giving up 30 points a game against lesser competition, it would be great if we can hold ND to 27 points. It would however be the first time we have held a 1A opponent to under 30 points this year.

    I know the defense is improving, but it seems unlikelihood our best defensive performance of the year will come against the best team we will face all season. I’m still all in pulling for the Hokies, but think we will have to score 40 to have a chance at all.

  7. Unfortunately, I don’t think our young and undersized O-Line have a chance to get any penetration or stop the running game. If Hooker is healthy, I think we can move the ball and score some points bu tit won’t be enough. ND will run the ball at will and beat us over the top on some big plays. I have ND covering the spread 🙁

  8. Tillery was a beast. I have a feeling that, as typically Bud Foster, if we stop Jones and contain Book and force them to pass, we have a shot. That’s what UM did but the weather was a factor too.
    We can also hope we can stay healthy for the stretch run.

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