First-year head coach Justin Fuente has had the daunting task of transitioning the Virginia Tech fanbase of 29 seasons of former coach Frank Beamer at the helm. Year one has been solid although the Hokies may have missed out on a prime opportunity to punch their ticket to the ACC Championship Game thanks to a 30-20 loss last week to Georgia Tech. So the Hokies will have to put off their quest to the ACC title game for a week for a unique out-of-conference contest.
The 2016 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish has been one of the oddest seasons in the illustrious history of the Golden Domers. Entering the season with a probable top-5 draft selection at quarterback, a bright offensive mind at head coach, and an experienced coaching staff may not have convinced many to view them as playoff contenders but with a 4-6 record, it’s safe to say the Irish fell incredibly short of expectations. Now they welcome the 7-3 Virginia Tech Hokies to South Bend in the first ever meeting between the two schools. Let’s break down the unique matchup.
What To Know About Virginia Tech:
Prior to the loss to the Yellow Jackets last week, the Hokies navigated their way to the top of the ACC Coastal Division. Technically, they are in a tie for first place in the division with the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Hokies hold the tiebreaker over the Heels thanks to a 34-3 win over UNC on October 8th. The Hokies offense are averaging 444.3 yards per game, good for fifth in the ACC. The group is led by junior quarterback Jerod Evans, who has tossed for 2,525 yards and 22 touchdowns this season and leads the team in rushing with 608 yards and six rushing scores. Evans is one of a number of talents in the Hokies huddle with one of the best WR/TE combos in the ACC in receiver Isaiah Ford (58 catches, 795 yards, seven TDs) and 6’6 tight end Bucky Hodges (36 catches, 514 yards, five TDs). When Evans isn’t running the ball, a lot of times he depends on running back Travon McMillan, who is second on the team with 566 yards and four touchdowns. If you add in possession receiver Cam Phillips (46 catches, 633 yards, two TDs), you have a Virginia Tech offense that is averaging 33.4 points per game and has eclipsed 430 yards of total offense in seven of their 10 games.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster was an assistant under Beamer since the beginning and decided to stay to help usher in the Fuente era. Coaching his defensive group and having the 15th ranked defense in all of college football is one way to help. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is second on the team in tackles for loss with 13 to go along with leading the team in sacks with 4.5. His brother, rover safety Terrell Edmunds, is second on the team in tackles with 73 and first in interceptions with three. The play of nose tackle Woody Baron (46 tkls, 16.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks) has been exceptional and while there’s no clear-cut “star”, the group as a whole has been strong and on one accord for most of the season.
What To Know About Notre Dame:
Four wins. Incredible. Especially when a very talented quarterback such as DeShone Kizer is under center and leading the offense. That just goes to show that even the most “important” position can’t bail out an entire team. Kizer is 23rd in the country in passing efficiency while passing 2,470 yards and 22 touchdowns with only eight interceptions and in the past three games, Kizer has thrown for eight touchdowns and only one INT. Running back Josh Adams was second on the team in rushing in 2015 and now leads the charge in 2016 with 653 yards and three touchdowns. Inconsistencies along the offensive line as hurt the team at times but a line with three juniors and two seniors led by left tackle Mike McGlinchey has the capability of performing much better.
If there is a legitimate inconsistent spot on the Fighting Irish this season, it’s definitely their defense. The unit started the season allowing at least 33 points in four of their first five games including a 50 point Texas season-opening loss. Probably the best player on the unit is middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, who is trying to fill the shoes left by former starter Jaylon Smith. Morgan leads the team in tackles (77) and sacks (four). In recent weeks, defensive tackle Jarron Jones has elevated his play and has been finding his way into the opponents backfield. The firing of former coordinator Brian VanGorder has paid dividends for the defense that you may not see in the box score. Yards per play has seen significant change (6.2 before firing, 4.7 after) but again, it’s the consistency that is missing.
The season has gone awry for Irish head coach Brian Kelly which has given birth to rumors of his job status being on the hot seat. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but the Irish are having their worst season since the ending of the Charlie Weis era.
The Hokies are not a great team but make no mistake the Hokies have enough talent to come into South Bend and leave as a winner. The combination of Evans, Ford, Hodges, and Phillips will test an Irish secondary that has two freshmen starting and five total in their top eight defensive backs.
On the flip side, Kizer has a pair of receivers that will be a handful to cover in Equanimeous St. Brown (45 catches, 777 yards, eight TDs) and Torii Hunter Jr. (38 catches, 521 yards, three TDs). It will be up to an inconsistent Irish offensive line to keep Kizer clean and open up running lanes against a Hokies defense that is sixth in the country in team tackles for loss with 24 team sacks.
The Irish have plenty of talent. However, they have a knack of not playing efficiently play on both sides of the ball. For example, against Stanford, the defense stepped to the plate. Against Texas, Kizer and company kept the team afloat. Even at home in one of the toughest venues, it’s tough to trust an Irish team that is playing an offense that has a big dual-threat QB, multiple weapons on offense, and an attacking defense that finds it’s way into the opponents’ backfield.
Score – Virginia Tech 31 Notre Dame 23