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irish insider

With ACC Coastal aspirations, Hokies to pay first visit to South Bend since 2016

| Friday, November 1, 2019

Coming off a disappointing blowout loss to Michigan in the Big House, No. 16 Notre Dame returns to action this Saturday against Virginia Tech. This will be only the third time the Hokies (5-2, 2-2 ACC) and the Irish (5-2) have faced off, with each team holding one road win over the other.

Anna Mason | The Observer

Irish senior quarterback Ian Book gets sacked during Notre Dame’s 14-45 loss to Michigan on Oct. 26 at Michigan Stadium.

Virginia Tech prevailed in the inaugural matchup with a 34-31 win in South Bend in 2016, a season in which the Irish mustered a measly 4-8 record. Notre Dame evened the score with a 45-23 win last season in Blacksburg, in a highly anticipated matchup between the then-No. 6 Irish and then-No. 24 Virginia Tech, though the Hokies finished the year with a 6-7 record.

Despite the recent history between the teams, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said he doesn’t believe their win three season ago will hold any sway in this matchup.

“I don’t know how many of them we’ve got that were there [in 2016],” Fuente said. “It doesn’t seem like very many. We know we’re going to go play a very talented football team in a hostile environment. So I don’t know if there’s much to glean from things that happened [three] years ago.”

While the loser of the previous matchups ended up having a disappointing season, that likely won’t be the case this year, especially for the Hokies. Virginia Tech currently sits tied for third in the ACC Coastal Division at 2-2 in conference play.

The ACC Coastal, made up of seven teams, has seen six different teams win the division in the past six years, with the lone outlier being Virginia. The Hokies will conclude their regular season with a road matchup against the Cavaliers (5-3, 3-2), but have not lost to Virginia since 2003.

Fuente discussed the free-for-all nature of the Coastal Division.

“I feel like we had the same discussions last year. I feel like it’s just kind of the way the division is,” Fuente said. “It seems like anything can happen and, in some cases, anything has happened. But, in my short time it seems to be a fairly regular occurrence.”

In anticipation of the coming game, Fuente commented on Notre Dame’s recent loss to Michigan during a torrential downpour.

“The weather certainly was a factor, just watching the game,” he said. “I know that we will see the Notre Dame team we saw in all the weeks before that. Just reading their comments and watching the game, they’ll be ready to respond after that game last week.”

Fuente said the Irish pose a challenge not only because of their talent, but their experience as well — particularly with the Irish defensive front.

“If you look at their team across the board, they seem to be an older, developed team,” Fuente said. “Particularly on the defensive front, where they can certainly rush the passer and have been very good against the run. So, it’s going to be a challenge for our young guys to keep their technique when playing against really talented, good football players.”

Fuente had particular praise for Irish senior quarterback Ian Book and his ability to elevate Notre Dame’s play.

“Some point early [last] year they made a move to go fully with him as their quarterback and it really changed them offensively,” Fuente said. “And it really hasn’t stopped since they made that move. He’s a guy that can throw the ball but is athletic, gets out of trouble. He makes plays with his feet but keeps his eyes downfield, and can really hurt you on the move. I think he’s been a really efficient, good player for them and maybe one of the reasons over the last year and a half they’ve made pretty big strides on that side of the ball.”

For the Hokies, their offense has been helmed by several quarterbacks throughout the season. After starting the first four games of the season for Virginia Tech, and following a 45-10 blowout loss to Duke, redshirt senior quarterback and Kansas transfer Ryan Willis was benched in favor of redshirt sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker.

Hooker performed well in his first two starts, going 10-20 for 184 yards and three touchdowns through the air to go along with 76 rushing yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in a 42-35 win over Miami. He followed that performance by completing 16 of 27 passes for 261 yards and another three passing touchdowns in a 34-17 victory over Rhode Island.

Unfortunately for the Hokies, however, in a six-overtime grudge match with North Carolina, Hooker went down and was succeeded by both Willis and redshirt freshman quarterback Quincy Patterson II, who willed Virginia Tech to a 43-41 win.

In terms of who will start for the Hokies against Notre Dame, evidence from Fuente points to Patterson getting the starting nod. However, Fuente said that in addition to Hooker’s recovery going well, the team will continue to rely on Willis in spots.

“[Hooker]’s out there going and looks good,” Fuente said. “[Patterson’s] taken more reps as we prepare for this week and, you know, on in the future. We’ll still need Ryan [Willis] as we move forward, whether it be situationally or just in the game. Things can change awfully quickly, all three of those guys gotta be ready to play.”

The Hokies benefited from a bye week following the game against the Tar Heels (4-4, 3-2 ACC), according to sophomore wide receiver Tré Turner, who said it was the first time the wide receivers were collectively healthy.

Fuente talked about the importance of having a complete receiving core.

“It’s nice to get them all out there together competing for playing time,” Fuente said. “I hope that they can continue to improve. I think [wide receivers] coach [Jafar] Williams has done a great job with them, bringing those guys along. And I’m optimistic that they continue to get better, kind of get their feet underneath them, and hopefully for this big, long stretch we’ve got here of five straight games that they can stay healthy and continue to be productive.”

While the Hokies are an inexperienced team, Fuente said he has enjoyed seeing his young players grow together over the course of the season.

“Well I’ve enjoyed [it],” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we’ll have plenty of tests in front of us. But I like our group of guys; they seem to enjoy each other’s company and enjoy competing together. We’re still learning and evolving as a team, from a maturation level and preparation every week. I think that’s something that’s a little more normal for older players and a little bit harder, little bigger strain on some of the younger guys. But I’ve enjoyed it thus far and I’m excited about what they and what we can be moving forward.”

The Irish kickoff against the Hokies at Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

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