Hello Irish fans.
Did you enjoy last weekend?
Was it fun to see Ian Book carve up the Stanford Cardinal defense like he was some sort of master carpenter?
Was it enjoyable to watch Jerry Tillery literally — and I mean LITERALLY — devour the souls of hapless offensive linemen en route to FOUR sacks?
Was it the proudest moment of your weekend when you observed Dexter Williams, back from his suspension and looking to make his ailing mother proud by coming back stronger from his mistakes, take his first handoff 45 yards to pay-dirt, outclassing everyone on the field with his speed and vision?
I have to imagine your answer to all those questions is a resounding “YES.”
But all of that is now in the past — beautiful memories we should stow away in our memories to pull out later and fondly recall at season’s end — because the 5-0, #6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team has another big game tomorrow.
ND travels to just its second road game of the year, diving into the crazy, lit, wild, and chaotic environment of Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. There, the Irish will meet the #24 Virginia Tech Hokies, a team that’s gotten a disappointing and embarrassing performance out of the way a couple weeks ago and is now back in the Top-25, seeking to put a damper on Notre Dame’s buzz and pick up a huge resume-building win.
The Hokies have not been good at Lane Stadium in recent years, and that goes double for games against ranked opponents. But the Fighting Irish have been equally as poor in road games against ranked teams. Something’s gotta give, right?
ND fans will tell you that their team is super balanced now with Ian Book at QB, and the 9th-ranked team in the S&P+ will roll. Virginia Tech fans will point to the 2017 ND-Miami game as justification for thinking Notre Dame will fold in a hostile environment against a defensive-minded team like the Hokies, who sit at 35th in the country in S&P+.
So, how will all this ultimately play out? Let’s dive into the offensive, defensive, and special teams matchups and see if we can’t come to a very biased but reasonable conclusion that Notre Dame will improve to 6-0 tomorrow night, eh? Sound like fun?
LET’S DO THIS.
Virginia Tech Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
At first glance, the matchup of Notre Dame’s defense and Virginia Tech’s offense seems pretty intriguing, considering ND’s defense has been fantastic so far, but Virginia Tech’s offense has been pretty damn good itself. Here are some stats to consider:
- The Notre Dame defense is 5th in the country in defensive S&P+ and 19th in ESPN.com’s defensive efficiency ratings
- The Virginia Tech offense is 30th in the country in offensive S&P+ and 26th in ESPN.com’s offensive efficiency ratings
- The Notre Dame defense is 27th in the country in scoring defense, and the only time they’ve allowed more than 17 points was when Wake Forest got to 27 in garbage time of a blowout
- The VT offense puts up some strong raw offensive numbers, sitting at 28th in the country in total offense and 32nd in scoring
- The ND defense is coming into this game fresh off a 2nd half against Stanford where they allowed just total offensive 31 yards, including a 4th quarter where Stanford had -13 yards (!!!)
This looks like it’s gonna be a pretty fun matchup.
The Virginia Tech offense is run by QB Ryan Willis, who came in for injured starter Josh Jackson during the Old Dominion game a couple weeks ago. Many VT fans actually believe Willis is the better fit for Justin Fuente’s offense, and Willis has been pretty damn good through 1.5 game so far: 527 yards, 10.14 yards per attempt, 4 TD, 0 INT.
His passing (and Josh Jackson’s before him) to the Hokies receivers has absolutely been VT’s best source of offensive production, with guys like Damon Hazelton, Eric Kumah, Hezekiah Grimsley, and Dalton Keene serving as his go-to-targets.
Hazelton especially has been great this season, scoring a touchdown in every game so far and racking up 348 yards on 15 catches. Kumah and Grimsley have chipped in a combined 24 catches for 378 yards and a touchdown, and Dalton Keene has been explosive from the tight end position, turning 4 catches into 105 yards and a touchdown.
That group will play the best secondary it’s faced so far this season on Saturday, though, led by CB Julian Love. Love set the Notre Dame all-time record for career passes broken up last Saturday (33), and has 10 on the season.
His fellow starting corner Troy Pride Jr. has really come into his own as well (26 tackles, 5 PBU, 2 INT), and the two combine to form a pair of corners that rarely get beat and do a great job of shutting down good receivers. Just look at least week, when Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside managed only 5 catches for 30 yards and a touchdown.
A key in ND shutting down Ryan Willis’ passing attack, though, may be the continued strong play of safeties Jalen Elliott (30 takles, 2 PBU, 2 INT), Alohi Gilman (32 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FF), and Houston Griffith/Nick Coleman (17 tackles, 2 PBU) in reserve. Safety has been a weakness for Notre Dame for the past few years, but that group has been vastly improved so far in 2018. If Virginia Tech is going to make any big plays through the air tomorrow, it will have to make those guys revert to their old ways of getting occasionally burned.
However, for that to happen, the Virginia Tech offensive line will need to give Willis time against one of the best pass rushes in the country. The junior trio of Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, and Daelin Hayes has combined for 41 QBH, 11.5 TFL, and 3 sacks, and they have just been fantastic in putting pressure on QBs and forcing them into bad decisions.
Then, of course, there’s DT Jerry Tillery, fresh off a 4-sack game against Stanford last weekend. Tillery has been damn-near unblockable in 2018, managing to accumulate 7 sacks, 12 QBH, and 3 forced fumbles from the interior of the defensive line.
If Virginia Tech can stop those 4 from getting to the QB, Willis might be able to have some success through the air — but color me highly skeptical the Hokies will be able to shut down those 4 guys, who have just been dominating offensive lines left and right this season.
In terms of rushing offense, the Hokies are driven by a pair of backs — Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease. The two each average 5-6 yards per carry and have combined for 516 yards and 6 TD in 2018, so they’re certainly no slouches.
However, don’t expect those two to carve up the ND defense, as the Irish linebacking corps has been SWARMING to the ball this season and suffocating running games — most recently holding Bryce Love to 73 yards on 17 carries — and 39 of those came on one carry, meaning the 2017 Heisman runner-up otherwise ran for 34 yards on 16 carries last weekend.
Te’von Coney (39 tackles, 4 TFL, 5 QBH, 1 sack, 1 INT), Drue Tranquill (35 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack), and Asmar Bilal (25 tackles, 3 TFL) form one of the best linebacker units in America, as their speed and athleticism combine with some nasty attitudes to make a group that rarely misses on tackles and usually makes backs pay for trying to run on them.
Overall, I think the Hokies have some talent that worries me a bit, but I have come to completely trust Clark Lea and this defensive squad with my entire life — I expect the Irish will once again play masterful defense and by late in the second half Virginia Tech will be struggling to move the ball much at all, as the Irish offense .
Offensive Hokie to Watch
QB Ryan Willis
Not only is passing going to likely be the only way for VT to pull off the upset, but Willis will also need to have an excellent game in terms of scrambling and eluding the pass rush, and will need to take care of the ball against a defense that WILL take advantage and force turnovers when given the chance.
Defensive Irish to Watch
DT Jerry Tillery
How will the senior DT follow up a 4-sack performance against Stanford??? I don’t expect that kind of statistical output again, but the Virginia Tech offensive line is almost certainly not ready for what Tillery is bringing. He will be a menace again and devour a number of offensive linemen, running backs, and Willis on his way to another very good game.
Halftime Fun Facts!!!!!
Best Names in the Game
- Virginia Tech S Divine Deablo
- Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
- Virginia Tech WR Hezekiah Grimsley
- Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
- Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
- Virginia Tech DL Tyjuan Garbutt
- Virginia Tech WR Samuel Denmark
- Virginia Tech DB Ishmiel Seisay
- Notre Dame LB Asmar Bilal
- Virginia Tech OL D’Andre Plantin
Power Ranking: Things That Rhyme With “Hokie”
1. Pokey (from Gumby)
2. Miroki (from Superbad)
4. Jokey (i.e. Mr. Jokey Joke-maker, AKA Peter LaFleur in Dodgeball)
5. Gnocchi (American pronunciation of the Italian pasta dish)
6. The Chokey (from Matilda)
7. The phrase “okey dokey artichokey”
8. Croaky (how I would describe a frog)
9. Oaky (of wine: having the characteristics of being aged in oak casks; of, relating to, or having many oaks)
10. Loki (from Thor/Avengers/whatever)
11. Smokey (Bear)
A Marcus Vick Refresher
Because I’ve had an absurd lack of Marcus Vick content in my life this week (which is unacceptable), I’d like to quickly remind you what Marcus Vick has done, in terms of crime (plus in terms of flipping the bird to WVU fans), since he arrived at Virginia Tech in 2002.
- He was arrested and accused of having sexual relations with a 15-year-old girl
- He was charged with unlawfully providing alcohol to three underage girls who “claimed” to be college students
- He was charged with reckless driving and possession of marijuana
- He was suspended from VT for the fall semester of 2004
- He angered West Virginia fans by flipping them off during their 2005 matchup
- He stomped on Elvis Dumervil’s leg during the 2006 Gator Bowl
- He lost his privilege to drive a motor vehicle in Virginia as the result of traffic convictions, including reckless driving
- He was charged with speeding and driving on a suspended or revoked license, bringing his total of traffic arrests while he was at Virginia Tech to NINE
- He was permanently dismissed from the VaTech football team in 2006; in response, Vick was quoted as saying, “It’s not a big deal. I’ll just move on to the next level, baby.” Vick went undrafted, played in one game for the Dolphins without recording a stat, and then never played in the NFL again
- In 2006 Vick was also charged with three counts of brandishing a firearm (he pointed a gun at a 17-year-old in a McDonald’s parking lot); Vick claimed the gun in question was a BlackBerry cell phone
- In late 2006, a 17-year-old girl filed a civil lawsuit against Vick accusing him of molestation of a minor, fraud, and additional charges, seeking $6.3M. The two parties settled out of court in 2008
- In 2008, Vick was charged with DUI, misdemeanor eluding police, DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE STREET, reckless driving, and driving on a suspended license
- In 2009, a judge ordered him to jail for probation violations
- In 2013, a judge sentenced Vick to 5 days in jail for failing to produce adequate documentation about his financial status by a court-ordered deadline; later that year, he was arrested for a second DUI, driving without a license, and driving with an expired car registration
- In 2016, he was charged with assaulting a police officer who was arresting him on a contempt charge; he pleaded guilty and served one month in jail
- In late 2016, he was again arrested on drug possession charges
- In 2017, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to a felony drug possession count and sentenced to two years in jail with the full sentence suspended
AH HECK YEAH, THAT’S THE STUFF, MARCUS!
Okay, now back to the preview...
Notre Dame Offense vs. Virginia Tech Defense
Whereas the VT offense vs. ND defense matchup should be strength vs. strength, this matchup could ultimately decide the game tomorrow night.
The Notre Dame offense is absolutely on fire right now, having amassed 1,116 yards and 94 points in the two games Ian Book has started at QB. The offense is now 37th in the S&P+ rankings and 31st in ESPN.com’s offensive efficiency ratings.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s defense has been worse than what we’ve all come to expect from a Bud Foster unit. They’re 57th in the country in defensive S&P+, 45th in defensive efficiency, and although they’ve been great against the run this season (5th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game), they have been equally horrid in shutting down passing production (123rd in the country).
Considering where the Irish offense is right now, that doesn’t bode super well for the Hokies. Book has tossed 7 TDs and gained 616 yards through the air this season, completing 74% of his passes. He hasn’t thrown a pick, but instead has revitalized an Irish passing attack that was stagnant and uninspired through the first few weeks of the season.
The Irish’s receivers have stepped up with the new life Book has brought to the passing attack, with Miles Boykin (20 rec, 311 yards, 1 TD) and Alizé Mack (13 rec, 170 yards, 1 TD) especially stepping their games up a notch.
Other receivers like Chase Claypool (14 rec, 174 yards, 2 TD) and Chris Finke (16 rec, 172 yards, 1 TD) have been fantastic as well, and help create a core group of receivers that have size, speed, and will be very tough for the Hokies to defend. Furthermore, in the red zone, the non-Alizé-Mack tight ends — Cole Kmet, Brock Wright, and Nic Weishar — have been dangerous as well, combining for 8 catches, 58 yards, and 3 TD this year.
The group of DBs who will be tasked with trying to shut down the size that the Irish receivers bring will be led by guys like Reggie Floyd (27 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1 INT) and Khalil Ladler (20 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU), as well as Bryce Watts (12 tackles, 5 PBU), Divine Deablo (12 tackles, 2 TFL), and Caleb Farley (2 INT, 2 PBU).
This group has not done a very good job so far this season, so I don’t anticipate Book struggling against them, especially considering the Hokies pass rush has been hobbled of late with the dismissal of Trevon Hill (3.5 sacks, 3 QBH) a couple weeks ago.
Houshun Gaines is the go-to pass rusher for the Hokies now, as his 3.5 sacks and 4 QBH lead the team, and he has already forced a couple fumbles this year, showing the ability to make game-changing plays.
However, besides Gaines, there isn’t a ton of pass rushing talent for the Irish offensive line to fear. DT Ricky Walker is a great player, but is much more instrumental in the Hokies’ top-5 rushing defense than in getting to the QB on passing downs. Look for Ian Book to have to deal with not too much pressure tomorrow evening (although, I think we could all see Bud Foster dialing up a number of blitzes to try to wreak some havoc and force Book to make mistakes).
Running the ball should be much more interesting, as Notre Dame hasn’t struggled much to do so this year, but the Irish are a little thin in terms of depth heading into this one. Jafar Armstrong (245 yards, 5.2 ypc, 5 TD) is out with a knee infection and Tony Jones Jr. (303 yards, 5.4 ypc, 3 TD) will be playing at less than 100% after getting hurt against Stanford.
Thus, Dexter Williams, fresh off his 161-yard, 7.7 yards-per-carry, 1 TD performance last weekend, will be shouldering the load, spelled by Jones Jr., Avery Davis, and probably true freshman Jahmir Smith.
The Virginia Tech linebackers will have something to say about slowing down that group, as guys like Rayshard Ashby, Dylan Rivers, and Dax Hollifield have been great in corralling ball carriers and limiting big running plays. Ashby and Rivers, in fact, have combined for 58 tackles on the season, so they will do the bulk of the tackling on Saturday night whenever the Irish offense tries to run the ball.
Overall, I expect the Irish to struggle a bit running the ball, what with VT’s talented linebackers and Ricky Walker in the middle. However, I think Book’s early success through the air and Dexter Williams’ ridiculous speed and athleticism will soften up Bud Foster’s defense, with the ND offense ultimately breaking them down in the 4th quarter to give the Irish a double-digit win.
Defensive Hokie to Watch
He’s the best player on the VT defense, and his ability to stuff the run will be crucial in forcing ND to be a little more one-dimensional with the pass.
Offensive Irish to Watch
QB Ian Book
This is Book’s first tough road game start, and we all saw what happened when he entered the game in a tough road environment in the ACC in 2017. He’s a much improved, more confident QB now, though, so I think we’ll see a much different result this time around.
There’s not a ton to say here. Virginia Tech is one of the best in the country at special teams (2nd in S&P+, 5th in efficiency), while Notre Dame is a middling special teams program (53rd, 64th) that has already given up a big special teams play this season — the kickoff return TD against Michigan.
This could be the great equalizer in this game — Brian Polian’s special teams units need to be careful, or Beamer Ball could turn in a couple game-changing plays that the ND offense and defense can’t do anything about.
Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One
Notre Dame 37, Virginia Tech 23
Why: I just think the Notre Dame defense will once again end up shutting down their opponent in the second half, and this Virginia Tech defense is nowhere near as good as Bud Foster’s defenses usually are. The game will be close early on because of the raucous atmosphere and the Hokies coming out pumped up, but I think ND is just significantly better and will win this one going away in the 4th quarter.