For most of the week, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish kept being reminded about last year’s collapse against Miami in a 41-8 loss. How could they not be reminded? The storyline leading up to the game was equal parts “Notre Dame can’t beat a ranked team on the road,” and “the Irish can’t handle a rowdy crowd.”
All the focus from the media for Notre Dame’s game against the Virginia Tech Hokies was about 15 minutes that didn’t count one second against the game clock. It was incredible that the Hokie entrance had to be mentioned by every talking head, and anyone that dared to pick against Notre Dame or predict a close game, used the Enter Sandman thing as their basis.
It was ridiculous, but given Notre Dame’s abysmal record on the road and the wounds from that Miami game still very fresh in the eyes of the country, it was expected.
Notre Dame overcame all of that, but it wasn’t without some bumps along the way. After getting off to a sizzling start the Irish kept trying to press the Hokies with the deep ball, but Ian Book kept overthrowing balls — and on some plays the receivers just weren’t on the same page. To make matters worse, Notre Dame could NOT run the football.
Notre Dame kept getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage in the first half, and the loss of Alex Bars along the offensive line was certainly being felt. Notre Dame continued to put themselves in 3rd and long because of the now inaccurate Book, and an offensive line that was getting outworked by Virginia Tech’s defensive front, and a diverse play selection from Bud Foster.
As the offense wilted in the second quarter, the Hokies turned up the pressure with a very efficient Ryan Willis, and his connection with wideout Damon Hazelton. Despite the effectiveness of the Virginia Tech offense, they just couldn’t punch it in the endzone against a stingy Irish defense and plenty of their own miscues.
But as they cut the Notre Dame lead to 10-9 (instead of going up 13-10) the momentum swung completely in the Hokies’ direction. Notre Dame was able to steal some back with a great double effort play by Khalid Kareem that forced a fumble which in turn developed into a return for a touchdown by Julian Love. The defense wasn’t able to remain stout as the Hokies took the ensuing possession down for a touchdown and we crept into halftime with just a one-point lead for the Irish.
It felt like the inevitable collapse was coming in the second half. Notre Dame was already down DE Daelin Hayes due to injury, and with the targeting ejection of Julian Okwara in the second quarter, one had to wonder if so many of the paper cuts that the Irish received in the first half were about to become a gaping wound in the second half.
To Notre Dame’s much due credit... it did not.
Ian Book recomposed himself and finished the game throwing 35 times while completeing 25 with 271 yards and 3 touchdowns. He was able to rein in his mistakes, and find his favorite target, Miles Boykin (8 rec 117 yds 2 TD).
The biggest difference, however, was electric Dexter Williams and his 97-yard touchdown run that sparked the Irish to outscore Tech 28-7 in the second half. Dexter finished the game with 10 carries for 178 yards and 3 touchdowns, and given the running back depth chart and the loss of Alex Bars on the line, he really was the difference.
So just like that, Notre Dame gets a 22-point win on the road against a ranked opponent inside what was considered an extremely hostile environment. The Irish were able to wipe out a 4 year old bad record and the stench of the Miami game in 2017 with one performance on Saturday night in Blacksburg.
The importance of this game was more than just the win. Notre Dame will be on the road in 4 of its final 6 games. None of those venues (two of which will be pro-ND neutral sites) will come close to being as hostile as what they saw (or were supposed to see) in Blacksburg.
As the Irish march towards a possible playoff berth, and their schedule starts to gain more and more scrutiny (Stanford just lost to Utah 41-20 as I write this) a 12-0 record becomes increasingly important. Technically the biggest test left was just passed by the Irish tonight, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
Notre Dame overcame a lot of history tonight to get the win and set themselves up for a playoff run, but they will have to use this experience as a building block to continue to win for the rest of the season. Regardless of the teams left on the schedule, the pressure only gets turned up as each week passes. Notre Dame proved it could handle that pressure in Blacksburg, and now it has six more games to prove it’s one of the four best teams in the country.