Irish Need to Get Physical

Still stinging from its emasculation at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines last Saturday, Notre Dame will try to bounce back at home this week against Virginia Tech (5-2). The Irish offense failed to gain traction in the rain in Ann Arbor, but the fact that their highly regarded defense was absolutely trucked by the Michigan ground game was a larger disappointment. Practice reports indicate the team was in a foul mood this week, which should translate into a much more focused performance on Saturday. The game will be televised by NBC beginning at 2:30 PM Eastern time.

The Hokies are coached by Justin Fuente, who elected to change quarterbacks after a disappointing 2-2 start. He inserted sophomore Hendon Hooker into the starting role in place of senior Ryan Willis, and the team has responded with three consecutive wins before last week’s bye. Hooker is a better athlete than Willis and has breathed life into the offense. Since taking over the reins, Hooker has hit 58% of his passes with seven touchdowns and no interceptions, while rushing for 160 yards and one score.

Ian Book hopes to put last week’s game behind him

Coach Brian Kelly is sticking with Ian Book at the helm despite his recent struggles. In fairness, Book has not been put in great position to succeed by Kelly and Offensive Coordinator Chip Long, who have taken heat this week for the ineffective game plan at Michigan. The team managed only 100 total yards for three and one-half quarters before backup Phil Jurkovec was inserted to mop up.

The Irish offense will be further diminished by the loss of guard Tommy Kraemer, who has a bruised knee. It is hoped that he can return for a bowl game. Jeff Ruhland and Josh Lugg will fill in until then. Also, starting wide receiver Michael Young has officially elected to transfer. Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy should get more snaps as a result. Virginia Tech may have to play without the services of left tackle T.J. Jackson and second leading receiver Tre Turner, but Hooker should be ready to go after suffering a minor knee injury two weeks ago.


The Irish need to revitalize the running game, which disappeared last week after a season-best outing against USC. Tony Jones, who has been carrying most of the load, is banged up right now. This means that Jahmir Smith and Jafar Armstrong must be ready to contribute more. Kraemer’s absence won’t help, but there are no excuses for another poor performance.

Rayshard Ashby is a sideline to sideline force

Virginia Tech has a young but deep rotation of productive defensive linemen led by end Emmanuel Belmar and tackle Jarrod Hewitt. Middle linebacker Rayshard Ashby is an impact player who averages more than ten tackles per game, while rover Reggie Floyd is the only senior in the lineup. Tech has performed well against the run this year, but the Irish represent a big step up in the level of competition.

The Hokies have held their own against aerial attacks. The story begins with the pass rush, where the team has recorded 25 sacks, including 15 in the last three games. Eleven different players have reached the quarterback, and the hits have come from all three levels of the defense. The secondary boasts strong safety Divine Deablo, who covers a lot of ground at 6’3” and 225 pounds. Cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller have three interceptions apiece. Farley has good size at 6’2” and will likely be matched up against Chase Claypool.

Notre Dame can and should run on this defense rather than place the playmaking burden on the shoulders of Book. The Irish signal-caller is much more effective when the ground attack is working and teams must respect the play action fake. One key to success will be their ability to block Ashby, which will be a more difficult task without Kraemer.


Tech QB Hendon Hooker is a dual threat

The 6’4” 228-pound Hooker represents a quality dual threat to defenses, and he has capable skilled talent around him. Tailbacks Deshawn McClease and freshman Keshawn King are solid but slightly undersized backs who can still move the chains. The offensive line is the area that will determine how well the Hokies perform. There are two sophomore starters including Christian Darrisaw at left tackle for the injured Jackson, two true freshmen, and a rotation of a sophomore and freshman at right tackle.

Wide receiver has been more problematic with people rotating in and out of the lineup. Freshman Tayvion Robinson leads the team with 24 receptions, but the recent return of Damon Hazelton from injury is a big shot in the arm for this offense. If he and a healthy Turner can join Robinson on the field, the Hokies will present a clear challenge to the Irish secondary. Tight ends Dalton Keene and James Mitchell are also capable weapons, particularly in the red zone where Tech has scored 21 touchdowns and seven field goals in 29 trips.

Fuente realizes the challenge in facing Notre Dame with his youthful roster. This week, he talked to reporters, saying, “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. It’s going to be a big challenge for our young guys to keep their technique when playing against really talented, good, football players.”

The Irish pass rush must make Hooker uneasy in the pocket while containing his avenues of escape. Since he has yet to throw an interception, chances are he prefers to pull the ball down and run rather than throw it in haste. If Notre Dame overcommits, Hooker might be able to find his tight ends over the middle or hurt them with his legs if his offensive line can give him enough time to sort through his options.


The Hokies’ Oscar Bradburn is the next in line of the Australian punters to play against Notre Dame. Bradburn has an impressive 48-yard average and is among the best in the nation. Kicker Brian Johnson has not made a field goal of 40 yards or more this season. The coverage teams are solid – only a very few of its kickoffs or punts are brought back. Return men Terius Wheatley and King (kickoffs) and Hezekiah Grimsley (punts) have average results to date.

Notre Dame continues to leave potential yardage on the field in the return game. To date, Chris Finke has been instructed to fair catch punts or run away from them entirely, while Young provided the only excitement on a kickoff return before his departure. Joe Wilkins will take over in this spot and is backed up by Lawrence Keys. Kicker Jonathan Doerer did not get an opportunity last week, while punter Jay Bramblett suffered a costly shank in the deluge.


For the second time this season, the Irish host a young but talented team from the State of Virginia after a disappointing loss. Amazingly, Virginia Tech lists only one senior among the 22 starting offensive and defensive spots. Notre Dame should be able to exploit its advantage in experience, particularly in at home where the crowd and the weather will test the Hokies’ resolve.

Irish OC Chip Long

As noted above, adverse weather conditions are predicted for this weekend. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Kelly will modify his offensive game plan accordingly. In fact, history suggests he and Long won’t dial down on the number of passes. Be that as it may, the Irish must make sure they are the best running team on this day. A pass-heavy approach instead of a more direct, physical attack may give Tech’s veteran, respected Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster an opportunity to play mind games with Long and Book. It is also imperative that Notre Dame’s defensive line plays to its potential this week. The youthful Hokie offensive line presents the perfect opportunity for an Irish rebound.

Here are a few questions that will help determine the outcome:

Can Notre Dame dominate the line of scrimmage?

Will the Irish defense continue to arm-tackle or will they play more crisply?

Which team’s running game will help relieve pressure on its quarterback?

Can the Irish limit successful scrambles by Hooker?

Will Kelly give Jurkovec any meaningful snaps?

Will Bud Foster be able to devise a plan that confounds the Irish offense?

Can Smith and Armstrong contribute more substantially to the rushing attack?

Which team will commit crucial turnovers?


A week ago, the conventional wisdom was that Notre Dame would easily run the table after prime time contests in October against USC and Michigan. It’s still a plausible scenario, but the Irish showed considerable vulnerability last week that lengthens the odds for a ten win regular season. This game will tell us whether the team has refocused or is still in a funk. The gap in experience between the Hokie offensive line and the Irish defensive front should be enough to tip the scales in favor of the hosts, where the defense creates good scoring chances for Book and company. Despite the talent and experience gap between these teams, an Irish victory may not come easily. The emotion fueling the troops at the outset will only carry them so far before the game settles into a more fundamental demonstration of blocking, tackling, and strategy.


Tell John what you think in the comments below

18 thoughts on “Irish Need to Get Physical

  1. My sense is they don’t get over the Michigan debacle by kickoff. I think a season like this is when you miss being in a conference. They can say all the right things but have very little to play for and Kelly will have trouble keeping this team motivated. I fear an outright upset – Va Tech 27-24

      • I suspect you haven’t seen my 100+ posts Mikey. My sense is they won’t play well but I’d be more then happy to be wrong. FWIW I had them beating Georgia and losing to Michigan.

    • Terry MCMANUS says:

      PC – I kind of agree with you.
      They were in a “foul mood” this week, which is some comfort, but I just don’t think they’ll be that good this week.

      7 captains (way too many IMO) to me don’t seem to be providing much leadership, and we can forget about it coming from Kelly. I see talent, I don’t see fire.

  2. Agree with you both, in as much as that is possible. PC I think the Lads will be slow out of the gate and not match the Hokies’ youthful exuberance. But then what I hope happens is that the hosts settle in and pound the ball. If I were Kelly and Long I would not think too hard about this one. Establish a running attack and ride it till they sell out to stop the run. But first things first: RTDB. A first series first down pass will disappoint me. ND 28 Hokies 14.

    • TJ Jackson was not RT starter and hasn’t started since injury in game 1. Darrisaw at LT is best Hokie OL though C & RG trFR are both 4* future pros who spurned OSU and Bama for VT. Tre Turner isn’t hurt, he had 109 rev yds & TD last game. Also Hooker hyperextended his knee vs UNC and may not start because Quincy Patterson rsFR elite 11 QB from Chicago ran for 122 yds and led Hokies to W vs UNC

      • Wrong. You need to do your homework.

        TJ Jackson is a starter on the OL when healthy, but not at RT.

        Tre Turner was indeed hurt, and is questionable for Saturday….. USA Today news report….

        “2019-10-27 Tre Turner WR Turner is battling a lower-body injury, and it is undetermined if he will line up against Notre Dame on Saturday. Ques Sat”

        Hendon Hooker will be fine for the game this weekend….247Sports news report…..

        “Virginia Tech should have starting quarterback Hendon Hooker available on Saturday when they travel to South Bend, IN, to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.”

  3. ED CHRISTOPHER ND '67 says:

    If ND is not motivated now, it will never be. VA Tech is not a great team and ND is favored by 17.5 points at home. The Coaches should turn loose the Defense and the Offense rather than trying to finesse the opposition. This will please the players, students, alums and fans. If they do so:
    ND 35 VA Tech 14
    PS. I would love to see ND run the table and then somehow play Michigan in a rematch bowl, any bowl (even the American Standard Toilet Bowl)

  4. Terry MCMANUS says:

    “Irish need to get physical.”

    Is this a joke?

    Correct me if I’m wrong but – football is perhaps the most physical game of all. It is a game of physical domination. Saturday night the Irish were pushed around, they were dominated, they were, in a word – humiliated.

    Their response – from players and coach – spin.

  5. As always, Vannie, this is a great analysis, and like every week, I read every word. This time, however, I don’t think the Xs and Os will matter much in the outcome. I think you touched on the real question of this game when you said, “This game will tell us whether the team has refocused or is still in a funk.” This game will not be decided on the field or in the booth; it will be decided on the sidelines. This game, more than any other (even last week’s), will be about leadership. If the team has a leader, if they still believe in each other and themselves, and if they still have faith in the coaching staff, they’ll come out of the locker room with righteous fury and tear these turkeys apart. If not, Virginia Tech is good enough to beat us, the season will slide into mediocrity, and we can look forward to an offseason where we yell at each other on this and the other fan sites about the future of the team.

    (Not that we won’t, anyway; we’ll just mean it a lot more.)

  6. Hokie here. That’s a really good write up in reference to VT. Captures the few strengths we have and also our glaring weaknesses. Hendon Hooker, our starting QB, may be out. If so, we’ll start a RS Freshman from Chicago. He’ll be a really good QB, but not this early in his career. Plus, looks like our #2 TB and one of our best DT will be out. I think your score prediction is fair. We’ve got some good talent, but we are way too young to compete with a mature ND team. If we had all of our folks healthy it could be a one TD difference… but more likely 3TDs. Here’s to no injuries on Saturday.

  7. I will give the Irish a mulligan (although I shouldn’t) on last week’s debacle if they come out on fire and crush VT and run the table for the rest of the season. However, something in my gut (or years of memories) tells me I am delusional.

  8. The fact that ND has been ornery and angry this week probably won’t intimidate Virginia Tech who won in ND stadium in 2016. VA Tech is probably angry they got beat 45-23 last year, so we’ll have two angry teams battling it out tomorrow!

    When ND was angry under Holtz that usually translated into a complete butt kicking of their opponent but under Brian Kelly it doesn’t mean much.

    Either ND will resolve to win out starting tomorrow or the wheels will slowly fall off and we’ll end up 7-5 or 8-4.

  9. RiverCityHokie says:
    Really good write up on the Hokies. As others have mentioned I think Quincy Patterson starts tomorrow. He’s a load to tackle but I don’t think he will be able to make enough plays with his arm. I was at the Michigan v ND game last weekend. ND was just flat from the start of the game and Michigan played with their hair on fire. I would be shocked if that’s the ND team we see tomorrow. I think the Irish will be able to run out the clock in the 4th to salt the game away

  10. Since the weather might be wet and rainy that means that Brian Kelly has a game plan to throw the ball at least 50 times with Ian Book. ND barely squeaks this one out 24-22.