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Gut Check Time: Irish Look to Bounce Back Against Hokies

Last Saturday’s top 10 showdown with Cincinnati marked the end of a 26-game home winning streak for the Irish in an abysmal performance.  The Irish fell to the Bearcats 24-13 in a game that exposed a lot of issues.  I am extremely disappointed in the way that the Notre Dame coaching staff approached the game, the player’s unenthusiastic body language, and the overall lack of “fire” showed from everyone associated with the team.  At the end of the day, Notre Dame undoubtedly has more talented players and recruits and they were simply out coached and out worked by the Bearcats.

Against Cincinnati, the myriad of complaints I have seemed to be never-ending.  I truly am a Brian Kelly fan, but I think his messaging of these big games being “business trips” is not effective.  Cincinnati came into the game after talking smack all week and backed it up.  They came out fired up, with a chip on their shoulder and took care of business.  I don’t remember a time in recent Notre Dame history where I have seen the Irish take a punch and simply never respond to it.  The Irish were cruising down the field on the opening drive before a crucial interception thrown by Coan in the redzone which turned into points for the Bearcats.  From then on, Notre Dame just did not have any answers.  The offensive play calling was questionable at best – it seemed as though any time the Irish found something that worked, they would refuse to go back to it.  Notre Dame’s offensive line play continues to regress, and I am sick and tired of having to watch that.  Despite Kelly’s claims that this offensive line is “young”, if you take a closer look, the Irish are playing a sixth-year senior, a fifth-year senior, another senior, and a junior, all with previous starting experience.  Please explain to me where this “youth” is?  It is simply just an excuse for unacceptably bad offensive line coaching.  If Kelly and the Irish truly want to take the next step and be in the yearly conversation of the College Football Playoffs, there cannot be these gaping weaknesses – especially at a school that is deemed “Offensive Line University”. 

Notre Dame beat themselves last week and now will head to Blacksburg, Virginia to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies for the Irish’s second true road game of the year.  This game will tell us a lot about this team and how the rest of the season will go.  I truly see this as an inflection point.  If Notre Dame can come out and take the crowd out of this hostile environment and get a win, I truly believe that 10-2 or 11-1 is still on the table for the Irish.  On the contrary, if we see another performance like what was on display against Cincinnati, there is no doubt in my mind that this could devolve into a 6-6 or 7-5 type of year.  At the time of writing this article, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback has not officially been announced.  In my opinion (and what the heck do I know?), it should be Drew Pyne simply due to his mobility.  Jack Coan would have seen a great deal more success if he was on previous Notre Dame teams that actually had an offensive line that could block for him.  Coan’s inability to escape the pocket has proven to be detrimental, and it seems that Pyne’s addition to the offense lights a bit more of a spark when he is on the field. 

Notre Dame’s offensive identity is still in question with the rotating carousel of quarterbacks, but I hope that we are at the point where Kelly will start Pyne and leave him in the game indefinitely.  Tight end Michael Mayer got beat up against the Bearcats last week and is recovering from a groin injury while wide receiver Joe Wilkins has torn his MCL and has been ruled out for the rest of the year.  As Notre Dame’s offensive unit has been mediocre at putting points on the board, these are two blows that I did not want to see.  With rain in the forecast against the Hokies, points and field position will be at a premium on Saturday night.  The uncertainty around Notre Dame’s quarterback position makes predicting what the offense will do very difficult.  If we get to see Pyne for most of or all the game, I do think that will help the Irish ground attack.  Will there be mistakes made due to the inexperience?  Yes, but Pyne’s swagger and mobility are things that I would rather see.  Now, making the argument for Coan would include his experience leading the Irish into a hostile environment – and would probably end there.  I will be very interested to see who will start the game for the Irish and how the rest of the offense will respond to that decision.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Irish are under a lot of pressure there, simply due to the offense’s low production numbers.  Virginia Tech is led by Oregon-transfer quarterback Braxton Burmeister who is a talented runner but has not been great on deep ball throws this year.  Burmeister has a speedy target at wide out, Tre Turner, who has been appropriately nicknamed by Hokie-faithful as “Big Play Tre”.  Virginia Tech’s top two backs, Jalen Holston and Raheem Blackshear are both talented individuals but (in a shocking turn of events), the Hokies are actually averaging less yards per run than the Irish are.  The Hokies pass game usually involves a lot of short yardage throws or jet sweeps close to the line of scrimmage, and I don’t expect them to challenge the Notre Dame secondary like Cincinnati was able to last week.  With that being said, the athletes that Notre Dame has on the defensive line should look to have some great performances on Saturday night. 

The Irish are going into this matchup as a one-point favorite, basically a “pick ‘em” game and will look to avoid back-to-back regular season losses for the first time since 2016.  As mentioned earlier, Notre Dame has more talent and it will come down to execution – if the Irish can take care of the ball, find a way to get points on the board, and not beat themselves, I expect the Irish to come out victorious.  I think that Kyren Williams and Isaiah Pryor will both have great games and will help the 14th ranked Irish improve to 5-1 on the year with a 24-20 win.  Let’s hope that this road game will force the team to rally around themselves and get the foul taste of last week’s loss out of their mouths. 

Go Irish.  Beat Hokies.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Florida State: 1-4 overall, beat Syracuse 33-30

Toledo: 3-2 overall, beat UMass 45-7

Purdue: 3-2 overall, lost to Minnesota 20-13

Wisconsin: 1-3 overall, lost to Michigan 38-17

Cincinnati: 4-0 overall, beat Notre Dame 24-13, currently ranked #5

Virginia Tech: 3-1 overall, beat Richmond 21-10

USC: 3-2 overall, beat Colorado 37-14

North Carolina: 3-2 overall, beat Duke 38-7

Navy: 1-3 overall, beat UCF 34-30

Virginia: 3-2 overall, beat Miami (FL) 30-28

Georgia Tech: 2-3 overall, lost to Pittsburgh 52-21

Stanford: 3-2 overall, beat #3 Oregon 31-24 (OT)