Virginia Tech’s open week came at a great time. The Hokies had a chance to get younger players reps last week at practice, while the starters had more time to look at film with their coaches. Injured players had an extra week to rest and get healthy, too.
The attention now turns to No. 14 Notre Dame. The Irish (4-1) venture to Blacksburg looking to bounce back from a 24-13 loss to No. 5 Cincinnati on Saturday.
Here are some takeaways from Monday’s press conference with head coach Justin Fuente, including what young players stood out and what kind of threat Notre Dame poses:
Younger Players Got Reps
As Fuente hit on last week, having an open week can be a real benefit to everyone on the team. Experienced players rest and figure out what they need to adjust moving forward, while those with less mileage on their legs can push themselves a bit harder than they would on a normal game week.
“It’s more long-term investment [than it is instant growth],” Fuente said. “Sometimes that long-term ends up being short-term, you just never know how the season is going to play out. The first guy that comes to mind is Jaylen Jones. A guy who was dealing a little bit with an injury, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been working with the ones and rotating in. It was good to get him in there.
“Jalen Stroman’s another one, kind of in that freshman class, that’s on the verge of playing a lot but has been slowed for one reason or another. It was great to get those guys in there. Pene is another one that just moved to the defensive line and working inside and needed all of that work and took full advantage of it, in terms of showing up to really work.”
Pene’s taken 19 total snaps this season, per PFF, while Stroman has played 55 and Jones has played 18. Getting those guys firsthand opportunities in-season will go a long way to their development.
Containing Notre Dame’s Three QBs
Through five games, Notre Dame has used three different quarterbacks. Jack Coan has started all five games and head coach Brian Kelly said Coan was the starter going forward after the Wisconsin win. Tyler Buchner, who is more of a run-first quarterback, has seen time in three games.
But it was Drew Pyne who really kickstarted the Irish offense against the Bearcats. Trailing 17-0, Kelly made the move to Pyne, who led Notre Dame on two scoring drives to bring the Irish within 17-13. ND lost, but Pyne seemed to spark the offense, something Fuente pointed to on Monday.
“I think 12 [Buchner] is obviously an athletic kid,” Fuente said. “I see the offense changing the most when he’s in there. 17 [Coan] and 10 [Pyne] seem to be the more proficient passers and I would say the offense is similar with those two guys in there. It still adds a challenge – you have to be ready for everything that you’re going to see without chasing ghosts. … We have to be ready for whatever guy they choose to roll with.
“Watching the game, when Pyne was in there, I thought they were going to come back and win, that’s what I thought. They had a little momentum there and they were making some plays offensively.”
Coan leads the Irish in passing with 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns. Pyne was the difference against Cincinnati, though, like previously mentioned. He only completed 9 of 22 pass attempts but threw for 143 yards and a touchdown.
Below is a breakdown of Notre Dame’s season passing stats:
The Threat The Irish Defense Poses
Notre Dame has changed defensive coordinators in recent years, which sometimes means the scheme will change as well.
After Clark Lea left to become the Vanderbilt head coach in the offseason, the defense is now under the command of Marcus Freeman. Fuente said the unit is “quite a bit different” than previous groups.
“I think Marcus Freeman is a fantastic coach with a bright future,” Fuente said. “They gave up a couple big plays, missed a tackle or two in the first game and then have played really solid defense ever since. They mix up their looks. The foundation is man coverage, but they mix up their looks and move their fronts and do quite a bit.
“They provide a tremendous challenge for everyone when you start to think about the diversity of looks you’re going to get and the talent of the people you’re going to try and play against.”
Virginia Tech and Notre Dame have played three times over the past few years: 2016, 2018 and 2019. The Hokies out-gained the Irish in the first two games, and in the third, with Quincy Patterson under in South Bend, didn’t have an excellent day offensively but played well enough to keep the team in it.
Every team that has faced Notre Dame this season has put up at least 300 yards of offense, and the Irish were out-gained in every game except Toledo. There seems to be potential to expose this defense, and as Fuente said, it’s going to be a battle.
“Every inch, every piece of turf is going to be hard fought for. Four yards is a big deal, and we’ve got to be emotionally prepared for that kind of game.”
Note On Silas Dzansi‘s Injury:
Fuente said they’ll find out more about Dzansi’s status as they go through the week. He said Dzansi’s injury status hasn’t changed, as of Monday. He injured his foot in the West Virginia game, and Fuente said he didn’t think it would be a long-term deal after the Richmond win.