Head to head: Virginia Tech
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, October 5, 2018
Ian Book absolutely dismantled the Stanford defense in just his third career start last weekend. While the Virginia Tech defense is the team’s strength, its secondary has struggled throughout the year, and the Irish offensive line should be able to hold up to Hokies defensive line. Book is able to thread the needle to his tall receivers and big tight ends and march down the field efficiently, giving the Irish the advantage over the Hokies here.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Bud Foster’s defense has been legendary in Blacksburg since 2000, especially against the run. The Hokies have held opponents to less than four yards per carry in 16 out of 18 seasons, including 2.9 in 2000, 2.2 in 2001, 2.8 in 2006, 2.7 in 2007 and 3.4 just last year. While this season’s stats have been somewhat muddled by Virginia Tech’s absolute collapse against Old Dominion — a game in which the Hokies still only allowed a respectable 4 yards per carry — Foster’s defense will look to mix up it’s looks and stop the Notre Dame ground game.
However, Notre Dame will likely feature the combination of Dexter Williams, Tony Jones Jr and Avery Davis in the backfield, with Book also a threat to escape the pocket and run. The loss of captain Alex Bars along the offensive line will likely take some time to adjust to, however, so consider this a fairly balanced matchup that could swing either way.
Irish Offensive Coaching
Offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme is looking really good under Ian Book. Statistically, the offense is at an advantage under Book, only lagging a Brandon Wimbush-led offense closely in one category — running. More importantly, beyond the statistics, this offense just seems to be clicking better. Against Stanford, Book totaled 325 yards and four touchdowns, all while making it look so easy.
Under Long, the Irish offense is a machine. When a defense focuses on the receivers, the run game makes them pay, and vice versa. Putting up 14 points in the fourth quarter against Stanford was just the confidence boost this team needed to take on the Hokies.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Irish Offensive Special Teams
The Notre Dame special teams unit struggled early on this season, but it has managed to shake off some of the early season jitters as of late. Chris Finke has appeared to settle in on punt returns, and a rotating cast of backs and receivers has proved itself capable on kick returns. It may not be the most explosive unit in college football, but it certainly hasn’t held the Irish back as of late.
Although Virginia Tech’s defense is a force to be reckoned with, its defensive special teams isn’t as prominent. The Hokies are ranked fifth in punt return defense, but the unit is outside the top-50 in kick return defense and outside the top-130 in special teams efficiency. Plus, this season the Hokies have squared up against Florida State, William and Mary, East Carolina, Old Dominion, and Duke, none of which have the weapons that the Irish have in terms of talent on the offensive side of special teams. It won’t be easy for the Irish, but they shouldn’t have a problem limiting mistakes on special teams this weekend.
EDGE: Notre Dame
The Hokies won’t have their go-to guy heading into the primetime matchup with the Irish on Saturday night, as redshirt sophomore Josh Jackson went down in Virginia Tech’s shock loss to Old Dominion. But redshirt junior Ryan Willis, a transfer from Kansas — where he went 0-10 as a starter — played well in a bounceback win against Duke last week with 332 yards and three touchdowns.
Justin Fuente’s offense likes to throw the ball down the field, and is averaging a massive 16.7 yards per completion. The Irish have definitely improved as a secondary, but showed flaws against a talented passing Stanford attack. If they can force turnovers, however, the Hokies will struggle to get things going.
The Hokies have a handful of running backs who have made a notable impact on the squad so far this season, specifically senior Steven Peoples, who leads the team with 310 yards on the season — nearly a third of Virginia Tech’s rushing total of the season — and redshirt sophomore Deshawn McClease, whose 227 yards put him just behind Peoples. Peoples is averaging 75 yards per game. That being said, the Irish have one of the strongest, deepest defensive lines in the country at the moment. The unit came up with five sacks against the Cardinal last week. Senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery alone tallied four sacks and the Irish were able to stifle Bryce Love, who Brian Kelly called the “best back in the country.”
Hokies Offensive Coaching
Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen may just decide to open up his whole bag of tricks against the Irish Saturday night. Because really, what does Virginia Tech have to lose in the game? After their shocking loss to Old Dominion, the Hokies need this win to climb back in the national conversation. With new quarterback Ryan Willis, however, how much can Cornelsen open up the playbook and let the offense loose?
It may not matter against Clark Lea’s defense, which is playing at a very high level right now. The most points the Irish have allowed is 27 against Wake Forest, and that was because Lea put the second team in. All three levels of the defense are playing at a high level, which leads one to suspect that Lea might have the advantage against a quarterback making his second start for Cornelsen’s offense.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Hokies Offensive Special Teams
Often paling in attention compared to offense and defense, Virginia Tech has established a tradition that puts special back in special teams. Since 2016, before every game one member of the Virginia Tech special teams unit is named “special teams player of the week” and selected to don Frank Beamer’s #25 jersey. This tradition is just one of many things that special teams coordinator James Shibest has done to build himself a solid unit in his third season with the Hokies.
Although their 41.91 average net punts are nothing to scoff at, they don’t meet the mark of Irish punter Tyler Newsome. On the other hand, Virginia Tech is yet to miss a field goal, an area the Irish have struggled in early this season. Most importantly, with the momentum the Irish defense is riding on their dominant fourth quarter shutdown of Stanford, the Hokies will need to come out strong to stand a chance against this stifling, veteran unit.