Undefeated and sixth-ranked Notre Dame returns to the road on Saturday night for a date with 24th ranked Virginia Tech from the Atlantic Coast Conference. The 3-1 Hokies are having an up and down season, as evidenced by numerous off-field player issues, significant injuries, an inexplicable loss to 1-4 Old Dominion and an impressive road win last week over 22nd-ranked Duke. Saturday’s clash is the featured game in prime time on ABC, and coverage will start at 8:00 pm Eastern time.
Virginia Tech is led by Head Coach Justin Fuente, who is 22-9 in his third season at the helm after resurrecting the Memphis program from 2012-15. Fuente hopes the turmoil that has plagued his squad is finally at an end so he can build continuity with a new quarterback and several young starters on defense. A visit from Notre Dame may be the perfect opportunity for Fuente to galvanize the focus of his team and fan base.
The Hokies have been shell shocked by significant attrition throughout the summer and into the season. Four probable defensive starters were lost to injury, suspension or transfer before the start of fall camp. Once the season began, the team dismissed star defensive end Trevon Hill for multiple, undisclosed behavioral incidents. Most recently, starting quarterback Josh Jackson went down two weeks ago with a broken leg. He was replaced by Ryan Willis, a transfer from Kansas. The latest injury report also indicates that starting free safety Divine Diablo is questionable for Saturday, while left tackle Silas Dzansi has been upgraded to probable.
Notre Dame lost Alex Bars, its best offensive lineman, in the victory over Stanford. Trevor Ruhland and Aaron Banks will fill in. Tailback Tony Jones, Jr. also went down in that game, but reportedly will be available for duty in Blacksburg. Unfortunately, Jafar Armstrong (knee) will have to sit this one out. Tight end Cole Kmet also returned from a high ankle sprain to make a clutch reception against the Cardinal, and defensive end Khalid Kareem continues to play well despite a nagging ankle injury.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. VIRGINIA TECH’S DEFENSE
Tech will counter with the 4-2-5 alignment deployed by veteran Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster. Absent sack specialist Hill, the Hokies have relied on tackle Ricky Walker and end Houshun Gaines to lead the resistance up front. Gaines lost his mother earlier this week after a long illness, but may elect to play against the Irish. “Those are touchy situations,” Foster said. “Obviously, we have the utmost respect for House’s family and what they are going through. My heart goes out to him and his family. That’s kind of a private matter, a personal matter. We’ll see how he feels.”
The back seven for Virginia Tech has been depleted as mentioned above, leaving a group composed mainly of sophomores. Rover Reggie Floyd, a junior, is the veteran. He and middle linebacker Rayshard Ashby lead the team in tackles. The Hokies have defended the run comparatively well, but have been gashed for over 300 yards per game through the air. The Irish should be patient with the running game, however, as the Hokies’ lack of size and depth can be exploited.
Losing an excellent blocker and captain such as Bars does not help Notre Dame’s cause. Breaking in new starters in key positions is not something a coach wants to do in a hostile environment, but Virginia Tech has had its own problems and won’t express any sympathy. There will be pressure on Book to run the offense calmly and efficiently, while the Hokies attempt to force an early turnover and create panic among the Irish.
VIRGINIA TECH’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Hokies have a solid offensive line, which is a strength of this team. Dzansi, a sophomore who did not play last year, is the only question mark among a solid core of veterans. Guards Kyle Chung and Braxton Pfaff, along with right tackle Yosuah Nijman, have plenty of experience and wins under their belt. The battle with Notre Dame’s powerful defensive front will go a long way toward determining whether Virginia Tech can hang with the Irish.
Tech likes to throw the ball downfield, and three receivers average more than 20 yards per catch. Damon Hazelton is the best of this group, while Eric Kumah and Hezekiah Grimsley are the other starters. They are backed up by freshman speedster Tre Turner, although Turner may not be 100% healthy for this game. The tight end is Dalton Keene, who is also capable of stretching the field as evidenced by a 67-yard touchdown last week.
Willis did not experience much adversity in the pocket last week as he picked apart Duke. Notre Dame brought plenty of pressure in the second half against Stanford after a slow start, as tackle Jerry Tillery took over the game. The Irish have learned an aggressive defense that creates negative plays is a valuable weapon in an emotionally charged environment, and they want to be the team that forces turnovers and quiets the crowd.
Justin Yoon barely missed a 50-yard field goal lst week, but it certainly was not for lack of leg strength. Overall, the Irish have achieved a consistent level of play on special teams over the past couple of weeks. A forced turnover or a return for touchdown would be welcome and not out of the realm of possibility in light of the talent level they deploy on these units, but this would be a tall order this week. The Hokies have allowed returns on two of 28 kickoffs and none of its punts.
Virginia Tech also boasts competent special teams, as has been a tradition in Blacksburg for many years. Kicker Jordan Stout has not missed so far this year, with a long of 45 yards. Punter Oscar Bradburn is above average. In the return game, Hazelton has not done much to date with punts but remains a threat. Kickoff returns are shared by Terius Wheatley and Caleb Farley, where Wheatley has had greater success.
Foster will throw a few new defensive wrinkles at Notre Dame, so the test for the Irish staff is how quickly they can diagnose them and adjust. This process did not happen at all last November in Miami, but the Irish attack was much more predictable back then. After weeks of relatively poor second half production this season, Notre Dame clearly won this part of the battle against Stanford.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Can the Irish continue to turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns?
Will Notre Dame’s defensive line have enough energy for another dominating performance?
Which receivers will have the most success downfield?
Will the Irish lose their poise in the face of the frenzied Virginia Tech crowd?
Which team will be able to run the ball and achieve offensive balance?
Can either special teams dominate or deliver a scoring play?
Which quarterback will avoid turnovers and execute best on third down?
Will Brian Kelly finally become a Road Warrior?
NOTRE DAME 31 VIRGINIA TECH 20