The Virginia Tech Hokies are back to work this week, looking for their sixth win of the season. At 5-2, the Hokies still have some work to do in order to continue their bowl streak and this weekend a trip to South Bend to face No. 16 Notre Dame is likely Tech’s toughest opponent of the season.
The Fighting Irish, also 5-2, are coming off an embarrassing 45-14 loss at Michigan. Sure, it’s Michigan and losing to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s the way the Irish lost. Notre Dame allowed 45 points to a Michigan team that has looked inept at times this season. To make matters worse, Michigan rushed for 303 yards and three scores, averaging over five yards per attempt. It was so bad for the Irish that Michigan dominated while completing just eight passes, three of those also happened to be for touchdowns.
So, the question for Virginia Tech is which Notre Dame team will you see this weekend?
The Fighting Irish’s only previous loss was to then-No. 3 Georgia back in Week 3 in a game that went down to the wire. ND’s most impressive victory probably came over a then-No. 18 Virginia team in South Bend. Notre Dame has also defeated Louisville, Bowling Green, New Mexico and USC.
The quarterback for the Irish is Ian Book. As you recall, Book was also the signal-caller for the Fighting Irish last season when Notre Dame came into Lane Stadium and beat the Hokies 45-23. It was actually a 17-16 game at the half and the wheels sort of fell off for the Hokies in the second half. In fact, if we look back at last season as a whole, that game was a turning point in a tough season. The Fighting Irish exposed a lot of Virginia Tech’s flaws, which is what good teams do. Notre Dame was No. 5 at the time.
Back to Book, this season hasn’t been as smooth for the senior quarterback. We spoke with our sister site here at SB Nation, One Foot Down, earlier this week and Pat was pretty honest in his assessment of Book. When I asked him if Book had progressed since last season, Pat said no and believes part of his success last season was due to teams not having film on him. Pat doesn’t think Book is special, but he also stopped short of saying the Irish had anyone better on their roster. This sounds a bit familiar to Hokie fans after the last couple of years with Ryan Willis and Josh Jackson.
Ian Book doesn’t anticipate at all. Has to see someone wide open to pull the trigger.— Zach Dunn (@ZachSDunn) October 27, 2019
On the season, Book has completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,492 yards and 15 touchdowns versus just two interceptions. The Fighting Irish, at least this season, employ more of a short-to-intermediate passing game. It’s not to say they don’t have talented receivers—they do—but so we aren’t sure if it’s scheme or Book just not challenging down the field enough. Players to watch out for are wide receiver Chase Claypool, tight end Cole Kmet and leading rusher Tony Jones.
Book also is a capable runner and we’ve went over how that’s been an issue for Bud Foster’s defense over the years. That’s certainly an area to keep an eye on. The Fighting Irish always have a strong offensive line and this year is no different, however, it has yet to develop into the top group most expect them to be.
The key matchup for this game is Tech’s front seven against Notre Dame’s offensive line. We know of VT’s inexperience and lack of size up front and a team of Notre Dame’s caliber can expose those things quickly. Things could be more difficult if standout freshman defensive tackle Norell Pollard is forced to miss the game due to an off-field issue.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan’s performance against Notre Dame last week should certainly give Virginia Tech fans hope. The Hokies don’t have the strongest running game, however, the presence of either Hendon Hooker and/or Quincy Patterson changes that dynamic. And, head coach Justin Fuente says he expects Hooker out there this week. Patterson has also been getting more reps in practice so I am sure we will see both this weekend.
Justin Fuente's here speaking to reporters. Says QB Hendon Hooker it out there and looks good. Sounds like he'll play this week. #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) October 28, 2019
Hooker and Patterson have both proven they can take it to the house. That can not only help open up holes for Deshawn McClease and Keshawn King, but also give the receiver and tight ends more room to operate.
The strength of this Hokie team is the wide receivers and tight ends. Since Hooker took over in the Miami game, the coaching staff has involved Dalton Keene and James Mitchell more in the passing game. That’s a wise decision. Keene and Mitchell are studs and are tough matchups for the opposition. Using a lot of two tight-end sets allow the Hokies multiple options on offense as both Keene and Mitchell are capable blockers and outstanding receivers.
The Fighting Irish rank No. 37 in pass-efficiency defense. They have a solid secondary led by a few familiar names in cornerback Troy Pride (a former Hokie commit), safety Jalen Elliott (from Richmond) and rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (from Hampton). All are very good players and Elliott and Owusu are arguably two of Notre Dame’s top performers and will be key in containing Tech’s passing game.
Elliott and Owusu are also two huge recruiting misses for the Hokies. Owusu was never pursued heavily by Foster’s staff and he has developed into a strong player. Elliott was recruited but Tech dropped the ball. Pride decommitted once other schools like Clemson and Notre Dame started sniffing around and also due to the uncertainty of the coaching staff as it was Frank Beamer’s last season.
Since Damon Hazelton returned to the lineup he has been a difference-maker. For the second straight game, the Hokies will have both of their top receivers on the field at the same time. Hazelton and Tre Turner are a tough matchup for any secondary. Virginia Tech needs to give Hooker/Patterson time in the pocket as the Fighting Irish have some good pass-rushers in Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.
The Hokies are 17-point underdogs in this game and I would expect them to be, however, the Hokies can also hang with the Irish if they can get strong QB play. Tech just needs a strong effort from Bud Foster’s defense.