A 21-20 escape victory over the Hokies of Virginia Tech may have left Irish fans with even more questions than answers heading into the remainder of the season. With Notre Dame looking for a bounce back game this past weekend, the Irish defense stepped back up while the offense remained mediocre at best. Sitting at 6-2 and ranked fifteenth in the nation, where does this win actually leave the Irish? After beating Virginia Tech, Notre Dame has officially done the ‘Hokie Pokey’, and now it’s time to turn the offense around.
Clark Lea and the Notre Dame defense played very well this past Saturday only giving up 13 points and a mere 2.8 yards per run against a Virginia Tech team that was looking to run the ball all game. Going up against an offense that was averaging nearly 400 yards per game, the Notre Dame defense held the Hokies to a total of 240 yards. With all signs pointing to Hendon Hooker being the starting quarterback for Virginia Tech on Saturday, the Hokies ended up going with another freshman – six foot four inch, 245 pound, Quincy Patterson II. Patterson, a very raw talent finished the game only completing nine of his 28 attempts for 139 yards with one touchdown and one interception. As another dual threat quarterback, he added on another 19 carries for 77 rushing yards. The Hokies passing game consisted of a lot of 50/50 jump balls and the Irish corners – specifically Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn – were left on islands for the majority of the game. With that being said, they both played relatively well in the pass coverage, however I still fall into the belief that they need to turn their heads more to make a play on the ball when it is being thrown their way rather than simply shadowing the receiver and waiting to read their movements to make a pass breakup. While being on an island for most of the game, the Notre Dame corners did give up some contested catches to the Virginia Tech receivers, but in the big picture, only giving up 13 points should have made the game extremely manageable for the Irish offense.
The turning point in the game came when Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong fumbled the ball on the two yard line before making it into the end zone for what would have been another Notre Dame touchdown. Had Armstrong been able to score, the Irish could have gone into halftime with a 21-7 lead and I think the game would have had a completely different feel to it. Instead, the Armstrong fumble was immediately recovered and taken 98 yards the other way for a Virginia Tech touchdown giving us a 14-14 tie score at the half. As has been noted by numerous different outlets, this was the first fumble lost by a Notre Dame running back since 2015 and it definitely came at an inopportune time. Luckily this did not take the Irish completely out of the game, but it definitely swung the momentum and gave the Hokie-faithful who made the trip to South Bend a lot to be optimistic about coming into the second half.
With the game being tied at that point, the Irish offense needed to step up and string together some scoring drives as the defense has continued to bail them out all season. Unfortunately, the Notre Dame offense continues to sputter. Quarterback Ian Book finished the game completing 29 of his 53 passing attempts for 341 yards in the air with two touchdowns and two (very bad) interceptions. Book tacked on another 13 rushes for 50 yards and the game winning touchdown run late in the fourth quarter to help seal the Irish victory. Notre Dame’s run game, outside of Book’s 50 yards on the ground, only totaled another 58 yards and for a team who needs to establish the run in order to truly open up the passing game, is significantly less than optimal. Irish fans are extremely thankful for the efforts of standout wide receiver Chase Claypool, Book’s go-to target on Saturday, who finished the game with a team leading eight receptions for 118 yards. Claypool came up with multiple clutch catches during the Irish’s final drive, helping to prevent a major upset. Although Book attempted 53 passes on Saturday, there were still plays where Irish receivers were getting open down field and they weren’t being found; this has been the shared frustration felt throughout the season. Not all was gloom and doom for the Irish offense as Lou Sologyi, senior editor at Blue and Gold Illustrated, pointed out that there have only been ten previous games in which a Notre Dame quarterback has thrown over 50 pass attempts and the Irish were 0-10 before Saturday’s victory in those games. For all the criticism that Book has taken throughout the season, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders on Notre Dame’s final offensive drive. Backed up at his own 13 yard line, Book was able to lead the Irish down the field for the game winning touchdown showing a lot of poise and heart in the final three minutes of the game. Book didn’t necessarily play spectacular, but he did just enough to get the job done. I do believe that had Book and the Irish not scored on that final possession, Book’s time as the Notre Dame starting quarterback would be very quickly coming to an end with serious consideration going to Phil Jurkovec for the remainder of the Irish season. Notre Dame was able to take the punches thrown by the Hokies and after a deflating Michigan loss, still show the mental toughness necessary to come out with another victory.
In a much more unfortunate note, the Irish lost arguably their best offensive lineman and captain, Robert Hainsey, to what looks to be a season ending ankle fracture. Hainsey is scheduled to have surgery this week. With this latest injury, the Irish will be playing behind a completely reconstructed right side of the offensive line – missing both Hainsey and Tommy Kraemer who was injured in the Michigan game. Notre Dame will most likely be turning to fifth-year senior Trevor Ruhland and junior Josh Lugg to try and fill in for this injury-laden line.
Notre Dame was able to get their first win in the month of November and their sixth on the season, but many questions remain about – specifically revolving around the offense and their ability to put up points. The Irish defense rose back to their standard and did enough to contain the Hokies. With a rather significant upcoming test agains the Duke Blue Devils, Notre Dame will look to get a win on the road this upcoming Saturday. As road games haven’t been too friendly for the Irish this season, will Notre Dame be able to string together enough scoring drives to outlast the Blue Devils in North Carolina? That will be the next challenge at hand.