Ladies and gentlemen, your Notre Dame Fighting Irish have gone and done it again, smashing the then-number-7 Stanford Cardinal 38-17 last weekend to improve to 5-0 on the year and move up to #6 in the AP Poll.
Now, the Irish move right along to what will easily be the most hostile environment they play in this season, taking on the #24 Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium on Saturday night.
The Hokies have had a strange season, including wins over the typical ACC power Florida State Seminoles (though not quite an ACC power this season) and a ranked Duke Blue Devils team, but also including a convincing loss to the Old Dominion Monarchs and a game against the East Carolina Pirates that got canceled due to weather.
With all that said, the Hokies put together that nice road win at Duke last weekend, and have a little momentum coming into this matchup. Obviously, the Irish have plenty of momentum themselves considering the Stanford game and how well the team is playing on both sides of the ball. So, which team will continue to gain momentum, and which will come crashing back to reality?
I spoke to Joshua Schneider and Jay Johnson over at Gobbler Country to get their takes, and they did not disappoint in answering questions about QB Ryan Willis, Bud Foster’s defense, Legends of the Hidden Temple, and much, much more.
So, without any more rambling from good ole verbose Pat Rick, let’s check out what the two Hokie experts had to say about Saturday night’s showdown in Blacksburg.
1. What happened in that Old Dominion game — how did that go so wrong for what otherwise looks like a pretty good football team, especially considering some of the attrition the Hokies have already endured this season?
Joshua Schneider: What went wrong? More like what didn’t.
Not only did the youth of the secondary get exposed against a pair of senior wideouts that outsized them, the team couldn’t stop the run, didn’t seem to be interested in the game overall, the starting quarterback went down in a heap, and overall no one really could catch passes or get open.
Basically, the youth of the defense was completely laid bare and the team was poorly prepared. Between losing momentum in a bye week and running into a game where a young team was full of itself and thought it could just walk out on the field and beat an FBS team without much effort? Bleck.
On top of that, after the game Trevon Hill was dismissed for disciplinary reasons — granted, it sounds like it was quite justified, but still, just a great Saturday.
Jay Johnson: What we saw was twofold. ODU played the best football they have in years, including a coming out party for new starting QB Blake LaRussa, who simply could not miss.
The Hokies were unhealthy in the locker room and the coaches failed to appropriately react to the events on the field. It was the perfect swiss cheese model to set up an upset. You play that game ten times and the Hokies win nine of those matches, it just so happened this was that one game.
2. With starter Josh Jackson out, Ryan Willis is now in, and just led the Hokies to an upset of #22 Duke on the road. What have you seen from him so far, and how do you think he’ll handle a Notre Dame defense that has been fantastic so far in 2018?
Joshua Schneider: It’ll be interesting to see what happens, because I think Willis has the confidence in his passes and the ability to put the ball on spots that seemed to be lacking in Jackson.
I personally think you might see a lot of the same that he did against Duke — put the ball in one-on-one situations trusting his larger wide receivers to make plays on the ball. The Hokies seemed to have done more motion in the pocket with him as well, so look for that to continue.
Jay Johnson: In my opinion Ryan Willis is better equipped to run the offense that Coach Fuente and Coach Cornelson want on the field. He moves better behind the line of scrimmage, he is more decisive, and he runs the RPO better.
His skillset is going to allow him to keep plays alive longer and generate more opportunity due to his ability to throw on the move while going through his progressions. I do not want to imply that Jackson’s efforts are not appreciated, but Willis is simply a more dangerous player.
3. The Notre Dame front seven recorded 5 sacks against Stanford last weekend and ND DT Jerry Tillery is tied for first in the country with 7 sacks through these first 5 weeks. Is the Virginia Tech offensive line ready for that kind of test up front?
Joshua Schneider: The Hokie offensive line has been up and down.
Against the FSU front, which despite their record isn’t bad? Worked great. William and Mary? FCS team, did fine. ODU? Bleck. Duke, which has a pretty solid defense itself? Didn’t do GREAT in the run game, but did well enough in the passing game that it wasn’t an issue that I was worrying about. I’m not sure which line is going to show up on Saturday.
Jay Johnson: I think ND’s pass rush is the most concerning facet of their defense and VT’s line will struggle at times. The mobility of Willis and his ability to throw on the move will help. If the short to intermediate passing game we saw against Duke continues to develop it should help alleviate the rush.
Additionally, Willis has wheels. Last week he didn’t need to run much, but against ND he will, and I think his deceptive speed is going to keep VT drives alive on more than one occasion.
4. Who are the skill position players to watch on the Hokies offense this season — who should ND key on, and how do you think they match up with ND’s corners and linebackers?
Joshua Schneider: Right now the big play wide receiver is Damon Hazelton, who has a touchdown in every game this year and is leading the team in receiving by over 100 yards. He’s a big kid — 6’2”, 220-lbs or so — and a pretty decent size matchup to the Notre Dame corners, who aren’t that tall.
The starting three wideouts — Hazelton, Eric Kumah, and Hezekiah Grimsley — are all 6’0” or taller, which is VERY rare for Hokies wideouts. I think that if it gets into a one-on-one fight in man coverage, the Hokies have a shot at exploiting that advantage.
Jay Johnson: I’ve already mentioned Willis abundantly above. Beyond him I think RB Deshawn McClease is poised to have a solid game against the rushing and blitzing Fighting Irish. I expect to see a lot of McClease with hopes of him getting behind blitzing defenders.
TE Dalton Keene had a surprise big play against Duke last weekend and I think we will see passes to Keene regularly as VT looks to dump short-intermediate passes quickly to mitigate the speed of the ND rush.
5. On the flip side, how is Bud Foster’s defense looking this year? Who are the guys to watch at each level of the defense, and with the way Ian Book and Dexter Williams are playing right now, how do you expect that matchup to play out?
Joshua Schneider: Um, the defense, barring the ODU game, has been great. With the ODU game? Dunno what to tell you. NOTHING worked that game. The corners still have a lot to learn, and the safeties have been okay. The linebackers are all young, too.
Right now I’d suppose the best players/players to watch in this game are Ricky Walker at defensive tackle (probably the best DT in the ACC outside of the monsters at Clemson), Rayshard Ashby at linebacker (typical undersized VT linebacker that still somehow makes a ton of tackles), and Reggie Floyd at Rover — because he’s going to come up and pop people in the mouth.
Jay Johnson: VT’s defensive scheme has long revolved around leaving corners on an island and I think ND will be able to take advantage of this. The Hokies have a penchant for letting big pass plays happen. It will be key that they don’t quit on those plays when they occur, which they will, and they tourniquet the bleeding by holding in the red zone and forcing FGs instead of allowing TDs.
In this game the VT offense will also be crucial for a solid defense. Long sustained drives that end in points while keeping the ND offense off the field will be critical.
6. Choose an X-factor on offense, defense, and special teams -- what one player’s performance on each unit is the most crucial to VaTech upsetting the Irish?
Joshua Schneider: Biggest X-factor is how well the corners, especially Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts, hold up against what seems to be a suddenly revamped ND passing attack. If they can hang with the wideouts, this could be a game. If this turns into another ODU, well, might as well light Lane Stadium on fire and throw away the extinguisher.
- Offense: Dalton Keene, TE. If they get the intermediate passing game going and they can consistently get 5-7-yard gains, it should assist with the short yardage run game. These elements will be key to the long-sustained drives VT will need to create to beat the Irish.
- Defense: Caleb Farley, CB. He is talented but inexperienced. He has already been torched a few times this year because he lost awareness. His ability to stay with his cover will be crucial for VT to limit the number of big plays ND can and will generate.
- Special Teams: Oscar Bradburn, P. Sure, blocked kicks and punt / kick returns can change a game, but they cannot be planned around. Virginia Tech can plan to win the field position battle. If the Hokies can consistently force a long field for Notre Dame’s offense it will do loads to assist VT with a potential upset.
7. Which ND players terrify you (if any), and why?
Joshua Schneider: I plead the fifth; I haven’t watched Notre Dame this year. I’m just somewhat disappointed that Kelly didn’t stick with Wimbush until after the game, if you get my drift.
Jay Johnson: Ian Book concerns me. He didn’t do it as much against Stanford, but he showed his dual threat ability when he scored three rushing TDs against Wake Forest. On top of that, his accuracy and ball protection demonstrate a lethal efficiency.
Jerry Tillery concerns me on the defense due to his ability to simply blow up plays and punish QBs. The Hokies have yet to face a defense, this season, as potent as ND’s. How they can adapt to a player like Tillery will be instrumental if there can be a hope of winning.
WE INTERRUPT THIS VERY GOOD Q&A FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY STUPID: TIME FOR A WORD FROM PAT’S PERSONAL PANEL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS, AKA SOME BUDDIES OF HIS IN A GROUPME CHAT
Pat Rick (to the GroupMe chat): Folks, I need your thoughts on Virginia Tech. Any and all Marcus Vick takes would be much appreciated.
Hux: Fun fact: Virginia Tech used to be the “Gobblers” before Hokies
Hux: Also this
Serglock Holmes: The only Sandman I want to Enter is Thomas Haden Church in Spiderman 3
Hux: Me talking to college girls
Hux: When you see that one Bumble match in real life
Serglock Holmes: I googled Marcus Vick to just refresh my brain on some of his antics. Sheesh. I could write a college thesis on him.
Hux: When you go to Chili’s while on a work trip and they don’t have Bud Light on tap
Serglock Holmes: When you get your ass kicked by Old Dominion
Serglock Holmes: There’s an overwhelming amount of VT mascot GIFs
Hux: When your coach wouldn’t give Steph Curry a scholarship
Hux: When Metallica comes on in the car
Hux: BOTTOMLESS MIMOSAS
Serglock Holmes: When it’s 35 degrees in Blacksburg for a night game and fans still wear t-shirts
Aaaaand that’s all we’ve got for this week, folks! Wow, what great insight!!!
Now back to our regularly scheduled Q&A...
8. Notre Dame has a freshman running back by the name of C’Borius Flemister. What are the best names on the Virginia Tech roster, and do any of them top my guy C’Bo?
Joshua Schneider: Divine Deablo (starting free safety) easily tops C’Borius just because it’s a great play on words. Also props to whoever went Old Testament in naming Hezekiah Grimsley.
Jay Johnson: Ooh… I don’t think we have anything that can eclipse such a fine moniker. I do like the name of our DB, Devon Hunter, simply because I think Hunter is a great name for a defensive player. It reminds me of the former Jaguar LB, T.J. Slaughter, which is about the perfect name for a LB.
9. Justin Fuente and Brian Kelly, mano a mano in a karaoke contest. What song(s) does each coach sing, who has the best stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins?
Joshua Schneider: Justin Fuente would have to EMOTE in order to win a karaoke contest, and from what I’ve seen of him, that takes a blocked punt touchdown for him to even do much more than roll his eyes.
I’d give it to Kelly just because we know he HAS emotions. So the contest goes to Kelly by default without a microphone being involved.
Jay Johnson: Justin Fuente sings Toto’s “Africa” and wins by forfeit, because after crushing three minutes and five seconds of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Brian Kelly would leave for a nicer karaoke bar.
10. If you had to pick two current VaTech football players to compete on the 90s Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple, who would you choose and why?
Joshua Schneider: First of all, they’re the Blue Barracudas, because that was the best team, @ me.
I’d pick Dalton Keene as my ringer because he’s pretty much literally Rambo, and his fast and tricky partner would be DeJuan Ellis, who had a SPARQ score of 121.11.
Jay Johnson: Quincy Patterson and Damon Hazelton. Those gentlemen are rather athletic and I feel like they would have the best chance to overcome Olmec’s challenges.
11. Anything else ND fans should know about the Virginia Tech program, traditions, fans, stadium, Blacksburg, etc.?
Joshua Schneider: “Enter Sandman” is as loud and as impressive as it sounds (causing earthquakes on a regular basis), the stadium is TIGHTLY packed so you sit right on top of the field, and of course the food is good if you’re getting the smoked turkey legs. Parking is kind of a nightmare because Blacksburg is a small town with not a lot of great infrastructure for huge events.
The fans are amazing; and there’s always a LOT of tailgating going on — just be nice and don’t make a fuss win or lose and you’ll be treated great (barring the usual outlying morons that all fanbases have to suffer through). They’re also honoring former Hokies head coach and College Football Hall of Famer Frank Beamer with a statue before the game, so that’s cool.
Blacksburg is a nice little college town with a great vibe (my parents moved down there recently; there’s a definite draw to the place, especially for alumni), but if any of you are staying for Sunday Mass, you can go to either the War Memorial Chapel where the Newman Society holds mass, or you can attend St. Mary’s Catholic Church down Prices’ Fork Road.
Jay Johnson: Even if you are a member of the opposing team, there is simply something special about Lane Stadium at night. It’s very enjoyable. If you haven’t ever experienced the Hokie entrance to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” you are in for a treat.
Downtown Blacksburg is walking distance from the stadium and you should be sure to check out the bars and restaurants. They are all solid, for the most part, but some of my favorites are Hokie House, Big Al’s, The Cellar, and Sharkey’s.
12. Prediction time: give me a score, who wins, and your reasoning.
Joshua Schneider: I can’t really give you a good answer. I thought Tech was going to flatten ODU and then after that thought it would blow over at Duke. Nope. Thought it would lose to Florida State — but turns out the Seminoles are terrible.
So I decide that I’ll jinx you by saying Notre Dame wins something like 42-28 after the defense gives out. Who knows with this team so far this year.
Jay Johnson: 42-35, Virginia Tech. It is important to realize that I am the perennial ray of sunshine here and I often default to believing in the Hokies. I try to be realistic, but I think that the Willis-led offense is going to surprise the Irish and VT wins a surprise shootout.
I want to give a HUGE thank you to Joshua and Jay for answering all of my ridiculous questions, and encourage you all to check out what they and the rest of the team are doing at the Gobbler Country site — anything you need to know about Virginia Tech heading into this weekend, they’ve got it. Also, be sure to follow them on Twitter and throw Joshua a follow, as well as Jay, for any and all breaking, hard-hitting Hokie updates.
Additionally, thanks again to my Panel of College Football Fans — i.e., Hux and Serglock Holmes — who continue to be undefeated in providing us with the most critical information on ND opponents that we could ever ask for.
See you all in my Game Preview on Friday!