Virginia Tech excited to welcome Notre Dame to Lane Stadium for first time
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, October 5, 2018
With the Irish travelling down to Blacksburg, Virginia, this weekend in a ranked road matchup with No. 24 Virginia Tech, Notre Dame (5-0) has more than just a win on the line.
That’s because for all the success Brian Kelly’s program has had at home, the opposite has happened on the road.
“We’ve been preparing for this kind of environment for quite some time,” Kelly said. “So I’m confident we’ll be able to handle the moment when it comes.”
The last time Notre Dame won a road matchup against a top-25 team was in 2015, when the Irish travelled to Philadelphia and won a close matchup with then-No. 21 Temple. Since 2005, the program has a 4-20 record on the road in ranked matchups, with last year’s 10-3 record being marred by crushing losses at Miami and Stanford.
“I think I was public in saying that I don’t think I even handled it the right way and giving them enough information about the situation,” Kelly said about his team’s 41-8 loss to the Hurricanes. “I can’t be caught off guard. And maybe I was the one that was caught off guard because I didn’t prepare them the right way. We won’t be caught off guard going into Lane Stadium.”
For the Hokies (3-1, 2-0 ACC), under third-year head coach Justin Fuente, Saturday’s visit by Notre Dame marks the first time the Irish have ever visited the storied Lane Stadium, where Virginia Tech has an 11-2 record under Fuente.
“This is the most complete and talented team we’ve certainly played to date. They really have things clicking in all areas of the game,” Fuente said. “They made a change at quarterback and the last two weeks have been very explosive. Defensively, through the entire year they’ve played elite defense, so it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our team.”
After finishing 9-4 last season, the Hokies came into 2018 with high expectations. Opening the season at No. 20 in the preseason AP rankings, Virginia Tech hit the ground running with a 24-3 drubbing of ACC rival Florida State, followed by a 62-17 win over William & Mary, and climbed up to No. 13. But in a matchup with FBS minnow Old Dominion, the Hokies shockingly stumbled, giving up nearly 500 yards through the air to the Monarchs’ backup quarterback, while also losing starting quarterback Josh Jackson to a broken leg and dismissing star junior defensive end Trevon Hill.
Fuente turned to backup and transfer Ryan Willis in Tech’s next matchup with then-undefeated No. 22 Duke, and the junior shined, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns, including seven-for-eight on third down as the Hokies got back in the win column and re-entered the AP rankings.
“He played pretty well. He could’ve put a little more air on a couple of balls maybe, but he was pretty in-control and felt comfortable with the looks,” Fuente said. “We had a few mistakes though — we had a poor exchange that could’ve hurt us on a third-and-long; we had a couple series there in the second half, where it’s not all Ryan’s fault, but just offensively we didn’t give ourself a chance to have success. For him to get in there and play against a quality opponent like Duke and play as well as he did, I think it was a nice performance for him.”
Kelly shared his own praise for Willis, who went 0-10 as a starter at Kansas before coming to Blacksburg.
“Offensively, they’ve had an injury at the quarterback position. But you wouldn’t know it,” he said. “Willis has come in and done a really, really good job talking about Ryan Willis coming in. And he’s a big, athletic kid, transfer from Kansas, that has got escapability and real arm talent. … He’s a really solid quarterback.”
The number of weapons at Willis’ disposal, including wide receivers Damon Hazelton, Hezekiah Grimsley and Eric Kumah, alongside running backs Steven Peiples and Deshawn McClease, also helped ease the transition.
“The receiving corps with Hazelton, [Hezekiah] Grimsley, Kumah, those guys are — it’s a really good group with great size,” Kelly said. “ … It’s complemented again from their perspective by having really good wide receivers, a good host of wide receivers.”
Defensively, under the tutelage of the legendary Bud Foster, the Hokies are young but talented, and are still looking to find consistency. Regardless, Kelly is expecting a tough matchup for his offense.
“Coach Foster can do about everything from a defensive standpoint,” Kelly said. “If you watch their film this year, they’ve shown you everything, from double eagle, bear defense to their structured invert defense, four down, to drop eight, to cover-zero pressure. So this past week we saw a lot of coverage. Drop eight, the week before, we saw a lot of pressure.
So you have to really prepare for a lot. And there’s a lot of moving parts to their defense. One of the best parts is [redshirt senior] Ricky Walker, their defensive tackle, extremely disruptive and multi-year starter, really good football player. [Redshirt junior Houshon] Gaines on the outside leads the teams in sacks, athletic player. And they run to the football. They’re athletic and they play really hard.”
With such a big matchup for both teams, Kelly said his team has been preparing for the raucous environment set for Lane Stadium on Saturday night.
“Our guys are well-accustomed to what it looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like,” Kelly said. “They know there will be a lot of orange. The decibels will be loud. They’ll be reminded of it during the week. So they’ll be much more accustomed to the situation.”