The Virginia Tech Hokies suffered an uncharacteristic performance against the Old Dominion Monarchs and responded with an away game upset of the No. 22 Duke Blue Devils. This Saturday VT will host the No. 6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The last time these programs met was 2016, in South Bend, when the Hokies erased two 17-point deficits to win, 34-31.
We here at Gobbler Country recently chatted with Patrick Sullivan of One Foot Down, our SB Nation Notre Dame sister site, to discuss the impending match up. Check in at their website and be sure to register if you wish to provide comment and. Throw them a follow on Twitter to stay up to date on the latest regarding Notre Dame football, as we approach the Hokies biggest game of the season.
1. Coach Kelly decided to make the change from Wimbush to Book after some lackluster offensive output against Ball State and Vanderbilt. What specifically does Book bring to the table that gives the Irish a better chance at victory when he is under center?
First and foremost, he brings consistent accuracy passing the ball. Brandon Wimbush has all of the raw talent you’d want in a QB - he’s big, fast, has a cannon for an arm, is very smart and a good leader, etc. But he really struggled to hit his receivers on any sort of consistent basis, especially on the kinds of short and intermediate throws that move the chains and extend drives. Book’s ability to hit on those throws has really opened up the offense and allowed all other aspects of the unit to flourish because of it.
The other thing, aside from his consistent accuracy, that Book seems to do a better job at than Wimbush is just making fast, decisive reads/decisions that normally end up correct. Wimbush struggled to run RPO plays effectively because of poor reads, and he was sacked a number of times throughout the first three games of the season due to sitting in the pocket indecisively for too long. Book, on the other hand, seems to just make his decision on each play quicker, and it’s paid off in an offense that just wasn’t ever really corralled by either Wake Forest or Stanford.
2. This first five games of VT’s schedule have been odd. Between a canceled game and the aberration against ODU, it is hard to really know who the Hokies are, even this late in the season. How dangerous of a team do you feel that Virginia Tech is and why?
I personally think Virginia Tech is more dangerous than a lot of people are giving them credit for, although I also think that the opinion of Virginia Tech not being a top-25 football team is pretty justified.
The Hokies have talent, especially at receiver and in the front seven, but when you really look at Virginia Tech’s body of work so far this season, it isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. The unforgivable loss to Old Dominion aside, the Hokies have a decent win over a borderline top-25 Duke team and then not much else. They can’t help it that Florida State has turned out to be horrible, but with the loss to the Monarchs and some attrition throughout the team (Josh Jackson, Travon Hill), I think it’s entirely reasonable to think Virginia Tech isn’t a top-25 team in 2018.
With all that said, I think they’re the kind of team that has the talent and home atmosphere and defensive/special teams mindset needed to upset a top-10 team at home, and this is absolutely the Irish’s toughest remaining game this year, considering FSU and USC both do not look very good. So, I’m fairly worried, but cautiously optimistic that ND is in another class this season and will take care of business on the road.
3. What do you believe is Notre Dame’s biggest weakness on offense and defense?
On offense, I’d say ND’s biggest weakness is offensive line and running back depth. Not only have the starting offensive tackles been mediocre this season and a cause for concern, but now starting LG Alex Bars, a preseason All-American who was playing like a postseason All-American, is now out for the year after tearing his ACL and MCL against Stanford. ND typically recruits pretty well at offensive line, but I haven’t seen yet a definitive reason to expect the OL reserves to be able to step into Bars’ or anyone else’s shoes and perform at that level. The VT defensive line could really impact the game if anyone else goes down.
Running back was a thin position coming into the season, and with Jafar Armstrong out with a knee infection and Tony Jones Jr. not at 100%, the Irish may have to turn to true frosh Jahmir Smith for some carries behind starter Dexter Williams. The Irish HAVE to be able to run the ball to continue to have the balanced offense we’ve seen over the past couple games, so losing anyone else in the backfield could be devastating to the offense’s production.
On defense, I’d again go with depth as the biggest weakness and potential issue, considering the Irish are pretty strong at all three levels. The defensive line has already taken a hit in losing DT Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa for the year against Michigan, and the linebackers are extremely thin considering the lack of proven, experienced talent after that exceptional group of starters ND has (Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill, Asmar Bilal). In the secondary, the starters have all proven to be pretty strong, but backups like freshman safety Houston Griffith and junior CB Donte Vaughn, though promising, have also shown flashes of inexperience that have led to big plays for opponents.
Basically, ND fans need to pray for a lack of injuries going forward, as one or two hurt starters could completely derail the season.
4. What do you believe is Notre Dame’s greatest strength on offense and defense?
With Ian Book under center, the Irish are now equally as potent through the air as they are on the ground. ND’s got talented receivers for him to throw to (Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, Alize Mack, Cole Kmet, Chris Finke), home run hitters like Dexter Williams in the backfield, and power guys like Tony Jones Jr. who can get it done in short yardage situations. With a good offensive line thrown in and Book’s creativity and ability to efficiently distribute the ball, ND hasn’t had an offense this balanced in years. Of course, I’m basing all of this on just a couple games, so take it with a grain of salt, but it’s been really fun to watch either way.
Defense: Front seven.
The Irish have 4 different guys with at least 10 QB hurries this year, and according to Pro Football Focus College, ND’s pass rush has been better than everyone through five weeks.
DT Jerry Tillery is an absolute monster (tied for national lead with 7 sacks -- 4 of which came against Stanford last weekend), and the junior trio of DEs Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, and Daelin Hayes has been wreaking havoc in the backfield almost at will so far this year.
Finally, the Irish’s starting linebacker crew of Coney, Tranquill, and Bilal are all super athletic, fast, and strong guys who have proven to be smart, sure-tacklers that can really lay the lumber. ND hasn’t had a front seven this good since 2012, and I think this one tops that one, which just had more star power with guys like Manti Te’o and Stephon Tuitt. This group is for real.
5. Since 2014 Notre Dame is 2-4 against ranked ACC opponents and 0-3 during away games against ranked ACC opponents. Last year No. 3 Notre Dame fell hard during an away night game against an ACC foe when Miami ended any hopes of an Irish CFB Playoff appearance, 41-8. What has changed since 2014 that makes you think ND can finally overcome an away ranked ACC foe?
I don’t have a good answer for you here. Last year before the Miami game, I would have told you the program had a renewed focus on defense and running the football, and that those things would carry the Irish to a victory in even the most raucous Miami environment. Then, ND got its sh*t rocked.
What I will say, is this time the Irish offense isn’t one-dimensional like last season, and the defense is in year 2 of this system with all the same guys that were in it last year (plus safety Alohi Gilman, who has been fantastic after transferring from Navy).
So, I think this is a more complete team, even if they aren’t coming into this quite as formidable-looking at the 2017 team looked heading to Miami. I’m confident, but based on the past few years, definitely hesitant to say I think Brian Kelly’s program will DEFINITELY handle this road environment differently than before.
6. Is there a specific Virginia Tech player that gives you significant concern? Why or why not?
DT Ricky Walker scares me. I think he’s fantastic and with Alex Bars out, I expect he will do some damage in the middle of the Irish offensive line, collapsing the pocket and pushing Book out of it, forcing him to make more plays on the run and not be as comfortable back there.
Book has been fantastic taking care of the ball this year, but he has made mental mistakes against tough defenses in the past and thrown picks. Walker will be the guy who leads the charge if the Hokies are able to pull something off like that.
7. Is there a specific Notre Dame player that you think the Hokies cannot mitigate? Why or why not?
I think senior DT Jerry Tillery will easily be the guy VT struggles with the most. He’s 6’6” and 300+ pounds and has the athleticism and strength to just manhandle whoever tries to block him. Watch highlights from the ND/Stanford game and tell me his 4 sacks from the DT spot don’t put the fear of God in you.
The Hokies interior offensive line better bring their A-games, because otherwise Tillery will devour them, as well as whoever is unlucky enough to be remaining in the backfield after he does so.
8. What aspect of the ND vs VT game do you feel presents the largest wild card factor which could influence the game’s outcome?
Lane Stadium would be my second choice, as the atmosphere is sure to be insane, but I think Virginia Tech’s penchant for big special teams plays could actually be huge in swinging momentum and mitigating the strong offense and defense ND is bringing to the table.
The Irish have already given up a kick return touchdown this year against Michigan, so they’re certainly not perfect on special teams. A couple big plays from the Hokies here -- maybe a return or a punt block or something -- could be critical in pulling off an upset.
9. Which facets of Virginia Tech’s football program do you most respect?
My answer to this is certainly the same as what most others would say. I respect the hell out of Bud Foster and the defense he’s been running for how long he’s been running it. The Hokies ALWAYS have a solid defense and the fact it’s been one guy responsible for that over that period of time is super impressive. Then, obviously, special teams -- ND is oftentimes horrible at special teams, so the fact Virginia Tech seems to always thrive in it is fascinating and envy-inducing. Being good at those things has allowed VT to have a top-25 caliber program for the majority of my lifetime.
10. Brass Tacks: Who wins and score predictions please!
Notre Dame wins this 37-23, because their defense will do its normal thing of wearing down the opposing offense and suffocating it in the second half, and Ian Book and the ND offense will exploit some weaknesses in the VT secondary that subsequently soften the defense and allow for RB Dexter Williams to break off a few nice runs. It will be close for most of the game, but the Irish will pull away in the last quarter or so.
A big thank you to Patrick Sullivan and One Foot Down! We look forward to a fantastic game and series that should see the Hokies and Fighting Irish meet up for several years!