We’ve seen this once before. Notre Dame began the season with a huge primetime win in front of an electric crowd home crowd against Michigan. The week after, against lowly Ball State, the team never got into the game. It wasn’t just that the Irish were starting Brandon Wimbush at quarterback. The offensive line struggled to get consistent push and key receivers failed to get open against man coverage. It will be hard for the Irish to replace its Week 5 performance in a dominant 38-17 win against Stanford. The key was Ian Book, who played out of his mind in terms of accuracy on intermediate throws. He gave Notre Dame’s offense a balance. Otherwise, the Irish love to rely on its ground attack and running back Dexter Williams, who returned from a four-game suspension, looked like he hadn’t missed a beat and exploited a porous Stanford defensive line.
Unlike Stanford, Virginia Tech’s strength on defense matches up with Notre Dame’s strength on offense. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s top priority is to stop the opposing team’s rush attack. In the last two years plus this one, the Hokies ranked in the top 30 in opposing yards per carry. The defensive line boasts significant returning experience and depth led by 300-pound defensive tackle Ricky Walker, who was third-team all-ACC. The linebackers are young. Dylan Rivers was a four-star recruit who played in mop-up duty last season. Rayshard Ashby played on special teams, but occupied a huge role in shutting down Duke’s run game last week. He leads the team in tackles and tackles for loss.
The linebacking corps’ secret weapon is defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Foster, a defensive genius who excels at making schematic adjustments to account for the opposing offense’s strength. Foster is experienced in shutting down the things that Notre Dame likes to do. Last year, the Irish called the inside zone run 170 times and it’s always been a staple of its offense even before Chip Long became offensive coordinator. Foster’s bear package constitutes an antidote against this interior run scheme. Foster will align his defense to prevent any of his defenders being double-teamed, to create personnel mismatches in the trenches, and to allow his linebackers freedom in pursuit of the running back.
One way Foster creates mismatches is by shifting a quick defensive end toward the middle of the line, so that his explosiveness supersedes the opposing interior’s reaction skill. In this vein, losing co-captain and veteran guard Alex Bars for the season presents a tough blow to a Notre Dame offensive line that is already missing two blockers now in the NFL. Particularly when V-Tech defenders don’t penetrate into the backfield, it’s important for the middle linebacker to read the opposing play well. Look for Ashby to build off his momentum from the Duke game. Virginia Tech sticks to man coverage while it’s focused on stopping the run. Notre Dame will miss its speedsters at wide receiver like Kevin Stepherson, who could more easily create separation from defensive backs, and Equanimeous St. Brown, who had a high success rate against man coverage. Stanford hardly sacked or hurried Book, but Foster will make him uncomfortable with his creative blitz packages. V-Tech ranks 36th in sack rate.
Virginia Tech is better off with its new quarterback Ryan Willis. He has great arm strength, a quick release that will be useful against Notre Dame’s pass rush, and nice touch. The well-sized quarterback can also tuck it and run. He lit up a highly-ranked Duke pass defense with 300 yards and three touchdowns to zero interceptions. The offense works better with Willis and this was already evident in the spring game. He has great rapport with his receivers. Damon Hazelton is a big-play threat with his aerial ability and Eric Kumah is tough to bring down after the catch. Both can be effective with their size against Notre Dame’s secondary. The Hokies boast a powerful duo of strong running backs who can help wear down Notre Dame’s defense. The Irish's defense is undoubtedly elite, but we’ve seen it wear down when the offense is lackluster. The Hokies possess the weapons to sustain drives and score, so taking them and the points is a good play.