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Game Preview: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame

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One Foot Down previews the Virginia Tech Hokies’ visit to Notre Dame on Senior Day

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Fighting Irish fans, Senior Day is almost here!!!!

Can you taste it?

Tomorrow is the final home game of this lovely 2016 Notre Dame football season, which means it will be a joyous Saturday where Irish fans get to watch a game between two solid programs, honor the seniors and 5th-year seniors who are completing their final games in the blue and gold, and most importantly, celebrate that this dumpster fire of a season is almost over.

The Virginia Tech Hokies come to South Bend hot off of a 30-20 loss to Georgia Tech that knocked them from their #14 ranking all the way to the great abyss of the unranked. They’re hoping to beat an underachieving ND team on the road to get some positive mojo heading into a season finale against Virginia that could prove absolutely crucial in their race for the top spot in the Coastal division of the ACC.

So, with all that being said, who are the players to watch on both sides, and how will everyone match up?

The text below this will hopefully help answer those questions.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Virginia Tech Defense

The strikingly inconsistent Fighting Irish offense finally looked good last weekend, as QB DeShone Kizer and the rest of the offense scored 4 touchdowns and accumulated 476 total yards against an extremely overmatched Army defense.

They will face a much tougher test on Senior Day, though, as the Hokies come in ranked 15th in total defense (329 yards per game) and 24th in scoring defense (21.2 points per game) and have played more impressive competition than Army to back up those numbers.

Led by linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka (85 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Tremaine Edmunds (79 tackles, 15 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 7 QB hurries), the Hokies defense is another classic Bud Foster unit with great talent and physicality at linebacker and defensive back and a smattering of hardworking, athletic defensive linemen that can get up field.

That combination has led to Virginia Tech ranking 14th in the country in pass defense, as defensive backs Chuck Clark (68 tackles, 2 pass break-ups), Mook Reynolds (45 tackles, 2 INT, 5 pass break-ups), Brandon Facyson (32 tackles, 8 pass break-ups), Adonis Alexander (22 tackles, 1 INT, 4 pass break-ups), and Greg Stroman (3 INT, 8 pass break-ups) have done a fantastic job blanketing receivers and making plays all over the field.

They’ll have their hands full with an Irish receiving corps that’s been strong all season and looked great against Army, with tight end Durham Smythe having a career game (2 catches, 2 TD) and freshman Kevin Stepherson continuing to get behind the defense for big gains (5 catches, 75 yards, 1 TD).

Their heightened play, along with the ever-constant Equanimeous St. Brown (45 catches, 777 yards, 8 TD) and Torii Hunter Jr. (38 catches, 521 yards, 3 TD), will give Kizer (2,470 yards, 22 TD, 8 INT) plenty to throw to as he waits in a pocket being rushed by Hokie defensive linemen and linebackers.

That pass rush will be supplied by Motuapuaka, Edwards, and defensive linemen Woody Baron (16 TFL, 4.5 sacks), Vinny Mihota (7 TFL, 2 sacks), and Ken Ekanem (4.5 sacks), and that group along with a few others like Trevon Hill, Ricky Walker, and Tim Settle will give the ND offensive line all it can handle up front.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

That offensive line has been great in pass protection, but extremely mediocre clearing running lanes for Irish ball carriers this season. RBs Josh Adams (653 yards, 5.1 ypc, 3 TD) and Tarean Folston (299 yards, 4.5 ypc, 2 TD) will look to exploit Virginia Tech’s average run-stopping ability, as the Hokies rank 40th against the ground game. Motuapuaka, Edwards, and fellow LB Terrell Edmunds (61 tackles, 3 INT) will bring the lumber against those guys (and Kizer whenever he takes off), though, so it will be interesting to see how the ND ball carriers and their blockers respond to one of the best defenses they’ve faced all season.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

Offensively, Virginia Tech has plenty of weapons but overall has not been stellar, ranking 44th in total offense and 45th in scoring. However, the Hokies are dangerous with the ball, mostly because of dual-threat QB Jerod Evans, who’s thrown for 2,525 yards, 22 TD, and 4 INT while also leading the team in rushing with 608 yards and 6 TD on the ground.

Evans has been a revelation for the Virginia Tech offense and still has another year of eligibility remaining seeing as he’s only a junior. He’ll look to get the ball to a talented and experienced trio of receivers as much as possible, starting with WR Isaiah Ford, who has 58 receptions, 795 yards, and 7 TD on the year and 189 receptions, 2,668 yards, and 24 TD total in his 3-year career with the Hokies.

He’s a do-it-all receiver and will give CBs Cole Luke (38 tackles, 2 INT, 4 pass break-ups) and Julian Love (32 tackles, 1 INT, 3 pass break-ups) a lot of trouble, especially considering they and the rest of the ND DBs will have to account for Cam Phillips (46 receptions, 633 yards, 2 TD) and TE/WR hybrid Bucky Hodges (36 receptions, 514 yards, 5 TD, a name that sounds like a baseball player from the early 1900s), who - side note - is 6’7”.

The Virginia Tech running game is somewhat similar to Notre Dame’s, as the Hokies backfield features decent runners in RB Travon McMillian (566 yards, 4.6 ypc, 4 TD) and FB Sam Rogers (a very strong receiver at the position with 13 receptions, 192 yards, and 3 TD this year) and a QB that makes plays with his feet, but the team has mediocre production overall.

Notre Dame linebackers Nyles Morgan (79 tackes, 6 TFL, 4 sacks), Greer Martini (52 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks), and James Onwualu (62 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2 sacks) have played very well of late, and will be tasked with corralling McMillian and Evans and racking up the tackles, while the ND defensive front of Isaac Rochell (47 tackles, 7 TFL), Jarron Jones (28 tackles, 8.5 TFL), and Jerry Tillery (31 tackles, 3 TFL) will need to be strong at the point of attack and get good penetration into the backfield to help the linebackers get free to make plays. Safety Drue Tranquill (63 tackles), a run-stopping specialist, will be key in helping bring down Evans when he scrambles as well.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Army Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction

Notre Dame certainly looked much more put-together in the Shamrock Series game in San Antonio last weekend, but considering the opponent was Army and the 2016 season has not been full of similar performances, I’m not convinced that this Irish team appears ready to beat a real opponent like Virginia Tech.

I think Jerod Evans will cause major problems for a defense that really hasn’t seen a QB that can both throw and pass like he can, and players like Ford and Hodges will make a few big plays against a young secondary that has been fantastic so far but is due for a couple freshman mistakes in coverage.

The seniors and underclassmen alike will play well overall and give Virginia Tech a run for their money, but the Hokies will end this game as they started it, being the better team.

Virginia Tech 33, Notre Dame 27

I know that outcome isn’t ideal, but it may just bring us closer to actually replacing Brian Kelly (because God knows we won’t beat USC at USC this season, so 4-8 could very well do it). That’s something to hang our leprechaun hats on, eh?

Also, Virginia Tech winning football games made moments like the below video possible, so at least we could take solace in Frank Beamer doing some sort of little dance as he finishes judging a beauty pageant.

Go Irish, and good luck/thank you to all those seniors that have spent 4 or 5 years entertaining me on the football field, for better or worse! No matter the terrible final season you endured, it was a pleasure watching you play and I’m excited to see a lot of you continue your careers in the NFL.