Note: Virginia Tech’s statistics omit their results against Middle Tennessee State and Furman due to data availability issues at ESPN and because we don’t include games against FCS competition. Any analysis of Virginia Tech only includes results from their 17-10 win over UNC and their 27-21 loss against West Virginia.
After a disappointing home loss to Cincinnati, Notre Dame is off to Lane Stadium in Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech. The Hokies sport a 3-1 record with a win over North Carolina and a loss to West Virginia, and similar to the Bearcats last week and Wisconsin before them, will face the Irish coming off of a bye week. For more information on the statistics we use in our analysis, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
Let’s lead with the most interesting decision by far this week: who will start under center for the Irish this weekend. At the time of this writing we are unsure, and it seems likely that we may not know until the Irish offense takes the field for the first time.
The case for Jack Coan revolves around his experience and throwing ability. Lane Stadium will be rocking Saturday, and having a quarterback who is comfortable in that environment will help (Brian Kelly alluded to this too, although it may be a smokescreen). On the other hand, Coan’s proclivity for being sacked is crippling, costing the most EPA in the country of any quarterback at -34.94. However, Virginia Tech only has the 61st strongest pass rush according to PFF, compared to Cincinnati who ranks 7th. Should he start and the Irish can keep him upright, it would be good to have Coan and his arm talent under center against a top ten pass defense by EPA/Pass. Their production may also be unsustainable as they only rank 64th in PFF Coverage Grade, another reason having the better passer in Coan under center may be a good idea.
Conversely, Drew Pyne’s ability to extend the play was somewhat of a revelation against Cincinnati. While Pyne and Coan finished with similar statistics, Pyne made several plays with his feet that Coan could not have. However, he also had accuracy issues Coan has not shown, which is why their efficiency for the game was pretty similar. Coan’s adjusted completion percentage (which adds drops to a Quarterback’s completions and removes throwaways from their attempts) of 71% is 82nd out of 144 quarterbacks with enough of a sample size to qualify. Pyne does not reach the qualification threshold, so his sample size is low. However, if you lower the threshold Pyne’s 57.1% mark would be 144th out of 148. Not very good.
Ultimately, we believe that Coan’s inability to help the offensive line with his legs makes Pyne the correct choice here, as well as giving Pyne an extended audition for the 2022 season. The most important thing is to pick someone and stick with them to let either player get into a rhythm and build their confidence. While there are arguments to be made for both, we hope to see Drew Pyne start and play the whole game barring injury or total disaster.
In addition to making a choice and sticking with it at quarterback, we don’t want to see Buchner be deployed the way he has. 27 of Buchnher’s 35 snaps thus far have been run plays, and defenses are clearly keying in on the read option. When you are just more athletic than a team like Toledo this can work since you can just win one on ones in space. Against Cincinnati and their top ten EPA/Rush defense, they were too athletic, talented, and ready to stop the Buchner read. Whoever plays the whole game, let them play it. If Buchner does go in, open the playbook up for him, and run more play action and RPO concepts to create more space in the second level that he will likely need to operate.
Moving past the quarterbacks, Virginia Tech’s run defense has been vulnerable this year. We are close to giving up hope that the run game will be a value add for Notre Dame this season, but hopefully the Irish can at least break off one long run against what has been a weak Virginia Tech run defense so far.
Finally, Joe Wilkins will miss the remainder of this season with an MCL injury sustained last week. Freshmen Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie will look to step up to replace him and make an impression on the coaching staff before next season when the wide receiver room likely loses Austin, Lenzy, and Davis. The Irish are down to just six healthy scholarship wide receivers now, so expect to see a lot more snaps for the young guns without Wilkins.
The Virginia Tech offense has been middling this season, although our analysis only includes two games against Power 5 teams so it’s likely these numbers would be a bit better if their two wins against Furman and Middle Tennessee State were included. Regardless, these stats point to a mediocre offense with a poor run game and a below average to average passing attack.
Quarterback Braxton Burmeister likes to spread the ball around, with just 56% of his targets going to his dangerous receivers led by Tre Turner and Kaleb Smith. Both were highly efficient last year, and Turner is projected to be a late round pick in next April’s draft, so keep an eye out for him. He is the deep threat in the offense with an aDOT of 14.5, while Kaleb Smith works more underneath with an aDOT of 11.6. When Burmeister isn’t looking for Turner and Smith he’s looking for his running backs out of the backfield, especially Raheem Blackshear who has been excellent as a receiver with an aDOT of 2.8.
The Hokies will likely try to get Blackshear some space through the air because they certainly can not get him any on the ground. The Hokies rank 77th in run blocking on PFF and sport the 116th most efficient rushing offense by EPA/play. Neither Holston nor Blackshear generate positive EPA or average over 4.5 yards per carry.
All that said, this is a team that Marcus Freeman’s light boxes should work wonders against and allow him to provide more help to the secondary to defend against Turner and Smith. The Hokies will likely try to run into the five and six man boxes Freeman presents, allowing Notre Dame’s talent and run fit discipline to shine through. While Turner’s ability to take the top off the defense is a bit worrisome for potential big plays, we love this matchup for the Irish defense.
Jack: While I share most people’s concerns about Notre Dame’s quarterbacks and lack of offensive identity, I’m going to take the Irish to win this week. The Irish defense is in rhythm and as long as the offense doesn’t gift wrap points through turnovers like last week I think the Hokies struggle to generate any offense. I’m essentially predicting a rerun of the Purdue game here, although if Pyne/Coan find themselves turning the football over it is possible we get a rerun of Cincinnati.
Cooper: Virginia Tech doesn’t have the level of defense Cincinnati does to add even more problems to the ones Tommy Rees and Notre Dame’s offense will create for themselves. And their offense isn’t explosive enough to take advantage of the Irish’s weakness in giving up the big play. I’ll also take a Notre Dame win and cover but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s another unsatisfying one.