After a brutal loss to Michigan, the Irish will take the field again at home this weekend for a 2:30pm matchup against the Hokies of Virginia Tech. 2016 was the last time that Notre Dame lost consecutive football games and the Irish will look to keep that streak alive with a much needed bounce back performance on Saturday. The team was able to get back on the practice field and focus their attention on Virginia Tech throughout this week – the first of four straight opponents who will be coming off bye weeks prior to facing the Irish. As was a common theme in Brian Kelly’s recent press conferences, he pointed out the fact that the Irish are “going to have to get back to who we are and play to our standards” if they wish to achieve their sixth win of the season.
Virginia Tech enters the game with an unproven identity to this point in the season. Coming in with a 5-2 record, they have two wins against FCS opponents, but also more prominent victories over Miami (FL) and a thrilling six overtime victory over North Carolina. Their two losses have come to Duke and Boston College, both future Irish opponents. The Hokies recently gave the nod to redshirt freshman quarterback Hendon Hooker who will be starting Saturday against Notre Dame. Hooker was injured in their most recent win over North Carolina but has been cleared to practice and is expected to get the start over freshman Quincy Patterson and senior Ryan Willis. Hooker is a tall, athletic, dual threat quarterback. He doesn’t necessarily have a big time downfield arm, but he is an extremely efficient passer and does not turn the ball over often. After playing in only one game last season, and making it to the halfway point in this year’s schedule, Hooker does not have much college playing experience – something that Clark Lea and the Irish defense can hopefully exploit. By showing multiple looks and forcing Hooker to read different pressure packages, the Irish will need to force the Hokies into some turnovers to really be able to seal the game.
When it comes to the Virginia Tech passing game, Hooker will be looking to his two main targets: Tre Turner and Damon Hazelton Jr.. These receivers offer very complimentary skill sets; Turner is the faster explosive pass catcher while Hazelton Jr. is a bigger, jump ball receiver. Turner and Hazelton Jr. accounted for all three of the Hokies passing touchdowns in their win over North Carolina. When it comes to running the ball, Virginia is lead by a very young offensive line. As with any young position group, growing pains are expected, but they have been meshing better as of recent, providing some decent run and pass protection. Behind the line, the Hokies have had a rotation of running backs used throughout the season so far, but Deshaun McClease looks to have cemented himself into getting the slight majority of the touches. McClease likes to use his speed to get to the outside so once again the Notre Dame defense will look to keep this contained. The Hokies haven’t shown to have an overly explosive offense but have been putting up points recently – scoring 30 or more in their last three games, but I am hoping that this will be a game where the Irish defensive line will step up and get significant pressure on Hooker.
Brian Kelly ruled out any idea of a quarterback controversy in his weekly press conference, stating that Ian Book will continue to be the starter for the Irish come Saturday. When the Irish take the field offensively, they will be missing two key players – offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer who suffered a sprained MCL and wide receiver Michael Young who recently entered the transfer portal. Kraemer’s injury will not need surgery to repair, but will most likely keep him out for the remainder of the regular season. Young’s transfer decision came at a very strange time just prior to the Michigan game, but that means that Notre Dame wideouts Javon McKinley, Lawrence Keys, and Braden Lenzy will all be seeing increases in their roles. After recording nine three-and-out drives in the Michigan game, the Irish offense will really need to reestablish their rhythm this weekend. With Jafar Armstrong slowly working his way back into the running back rotation, and going against a very aggressive defense, I hope that the Irish will look to take a few more shots down the field and that the offensive line will be able to establish the line of scrimmage, unlike the pounding that they took last week.
Looking specifically at the Bud Foster lead Hokies defense, two players to keep an eye on will be middle linebacker Rayshard Ashby and safety Reggie Floyd. Ashby, a 5 foot 10 inch 237 pound wrecking ball of a defender is the Hokies leading tackler and a very smart and instinctive player. Kelly alluded to this saying that he is “unquestionably one of the best we’ve seen.” Reggie Floyd is a 6 foot, 222 point rangy and athletic safety that is not only a great pass defender, but also isn’t afraid to come up and make stops at the line of scrimmage and even in the run game. His speed and athleticism make him another dangerous Virginia Tech defender.
Notre Dame is currently sitting as 17 point favorites heading into Saturday’s matchup and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. Do I think that the Irish are the better team? Yes. But am I still feeling the repercussions of the loss to Michigan? Absolutely, yes. That is what makes me hesitant about the upcoming matchup. If the Irish are able to come out and now show any signs of a letdown – putting up points early and getting some defensive stops right off the bat, then my confidence surrounding the team will be back up. If for some reason the slow, sputtering offense reappears and the defense gives up some early points to the Hokies, I very much expect the fans to voice their displeasure as the angst would continue to grow. The way that Kelly, Book, and the Irish come out on Saturday will tell us a lot about this team and how the remainder of the season will go. As I mentioned in my last article, I still believe that a 10-2 regular season is surely in sight. With that being said, I predict the Irish will shake off the previous loss and come out with a 31-20 victory. I do think the Irish could win by more, but as I mentioned, until I see something to enhance my confidence in the team (both offensively and defensively) I am rather hesitant to pick the Irish to cover the 17 point spread. Let’s put the loss behind us and tally the sixth win of the year. Go Irish. Beat Hokies.
A Look At Notre Dame’s Opponents:
Louisville: 5-3 overall, beat Virginia 28-21
New Mexico: 2-6 overall, lost to Hawaii 45-31
Georgia: 6-1 overall, currently ranked #8, coming off bye week
Virginia: 5-3 overall, lost to Louisville 28-21
Bowling Green: 2-6 overall, lost to Western Michigan 49-10
USC: 5-3 overall, beat Colorado 35-31
Michigan: 6-2 overall, currently ranked #14, beat Notre Dame 45-14
Virginia Tech: 5-2 overall, coming off bye week
Duke: 4-4 overall, lost to North Carolina 20-17
Navy: 6-1 overall, beat Tulane 41-38
Boston College: 4-4 overall, lost to Clemson 59-7
Stanford: 4-4 overall, beat Arizona 41-31