After a blowout win over Stanford a week ago, Notre Dame football is sitting pretty at 5-0. Here are the top storylines for the week six matchup vs No. 24 Virginia Tech.
Last week Notre Dame was able to secure its second signature win in the first half of the season with a 38-17 beat down of rival Stanford. It was one of the most impressive wins Brian Kelly and the Irish have had in recent memory, especially against a top-10 opponent in prime time.
After a win like this, the hype train surrounding this team has standing room only. Their National Championship odds jumped from 22-1 to 15-1 and the Irish moved up to the No. 6 spot in the latest AP rankings. This doesn’t come as too much of a surprise after the way the Irish have played over the last two weeks with Ian Book manning the offense at quarterback.
On the opposite end of the coin, some are still holding their breaths, especially for this week’s game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. The Irish have been in this situation before in recent years. In 2014, Notre Dame was 6-0 heading into their road matchup against Florida State in 2015 the Irish were 4-0 when they traveled to South Carolina to take on Clemson, and of course last year the 8-1 Irish traveled south to take on Miami. All three games featured a highly-talented Irish squad riding momentum, and all three games resulted in a loss.
Now, Virginia Tech is not nearly as good as the three teams faced in these previous games, but the basic blueprint is there. This is a top 25 matchup, on the road, in an environment the Irish have yet to play in this season. The Irish have all the media hype and national attention after last week, and they need to put together another solid performance Saturday night to avoid a season-ruining loss.
This will only be the second ever meeting between the two teams and the first time the Irish have played in Blacksburg. The first meeting came in 2016 and resulted in a 34-31 victory for the Hokies.
Saturday night can’t come soon enough. Here are the top storylines for this week’s matchup vs No. 24 Virginia Tech.
A Battle in Blacksburg
There is no doubt that this will be the toughest environment Notre Dame has played in so far this season. The Irish passed their first road test of the season vs Wake Forest with flying colors, but a day game in front of 32,000 vs a poor Demon Deacon team doesn’t quite measure up to this week’s game.
Virginia Tech is widely known for their rocking gameday atmosphere and running out of the tunnel and onto the field to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” The entire stadium is jumping and going wild and as a college football fan it is fun to watch as you can really feel the energy of the crowd. In my opinion the tradition is a little hyped up when compared to other great college football traditions, but it’s what makes the Hokies unique I guess, so it’s worth mentioning.
Additionally, Virginia Tech will conveniently be unveiling their Frank Beamer Monument outside the stadium a few hours before kickoff. I get it: Anything to get the crowd fired up and give the team extra motivation before one of the biggest games of the season is an understandable tactic.
Regardless of their rock music and statues, it’s the first road night game for the Irish and it will be in front of over 66,000 loud individuals. This will be a great test for the entire team. Injuries are forcing guys to step up or take on larger roles, and young guys who see the field will be doing so in an atmosphere they have never played in before.
Great teams are able to go on the road in hostile environments, weather the storm early, and play their game for four quarters. The moment isn’t too big for them and they take care of business. This is the first time this season where we will get to see that and gauge the mental toughness of this football team.
Offensive Line Shuffle
While the Irish were able to get a huge win last week vs Stanford, it unfortunately came at a loss to fifth-year senior left guard Alex Bars. One of the team’s best players and biggest leader suffered a reported ACL/MCL injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season.
Losing Bars not only presents a challenge of replacing an All-American with over 25 starts under his belt, it means the offensive line and offensive unit overall loses a leader on the field. That aspect more than anything is what hurts the offense most in this situation. The Irish have capable players who will be filling in at the left guard spot – with the main duties falling on senior Trevor Ruhland with sophomore Aaron Banks seeing some sort of rotation and increased paying time as well.
Ruhland has experience at both guard positions, recently getting his first career start against Wake Forest in place of injured Tommy Kraemer. Banks could also see time at tackle for Robert Hainsey or Liam Eichenberg moving forward. Dillan Gibbons and Josh Lugg are viable options at both guard positions as well.
The depth isn’t a concern; however, you can never replace experience. Bars had more starts than the rest of the starting offensive line combined (except center Sam Mustipher). He was an anchor in the middle who was also a great support option for left tackle Liam Eichenberg. Suddenly, the left side of the offensive line now becomes the most inexperienced side and that is worth watching for, especially with the importance of the run game in Notre Dame’s offense.
Notre Dame is all about the “next man up” mentality and I believe whoever is playing along the front line will be ready for the opportunity, but it is a big stage and no one can predict how that will impact new faces. Watch for the production of the offensive line this week after the loss of All-American guard Alex Bars.
Offense Staying Hot
It’s no secret that Ian Book has kick-started the Irish offense the past two weeks. In the victories over Wake Forest and Stanford, the Irish offense have posted a combined 1,116 yards and scored 94 points after only scoring 70 points in the first three weeks combined.
Book has accounted for nine touchdowns over the last two contests and is absolutely rolling defenses. This week, he and the offense will be taking on a Virginia Tech defense that is a bit of a mystery. The Hokies are currently have the 123rd ranked passing defense in the country… out of 130 teams.
They are giving up over 300 yards through the air per game and gave up an embarrassing 495 yards through the air in their loss of Old Dominion. That is exciting for the Irish offense, who have found a new and improved passing attack under the direction of Book.
Now the real question will come in the run game where Virginia Tech is on the opposite end of the spectrum and ranked 5th in the country giving up just 84 yards on the ground per contest. The run game is already somewhat of a question with new pieces along the offensive line and the injury of running backs Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr.
If the Irish can find a nice balance and get chunk plays on the ground and take advantage of Tech’s weak pass defense, it could be another explosive night for this offense on the scoreboard. It wouldn’t surprise me to see mostly plays through the air early in the game in search of a big play to get momentum and silence the crowd. If the passing game gets going early, the run game can be a nice compliment throughout the game, but won’t need to be relied on heavily and played into the strength of the Virginia Tech defense.