It’s really not an easy question to answer. Are the Hokies the team that couldn’t stop Old Dominion and lost to the 0-3 Monarchs? Or are they the group that dominated previously unbeaten Duke last Saturday night? The Irish — and the college football world — will find out the answer as ND heads to Blacksburg this weekend.
Notre Dame has risen to No. 6 in the AP Poll after dismantling Stanford with a punishing second half. This will be ND’s first-ever visit to Lane Stadium, and the two teams have met up only once, with the Hokies winning a nail-biter 34-31 in 2016.
Notre Dame at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Notre Dame -6
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Notre Dame was getting by, winning with defense over the first three games. But when Ian Book replaced Brandon Wimbush, the offense exploded for 56 points against Wake Forest and 38 versus Stanford. Something similar happened at Virginia Tech. The Hokies did score 35 against ODU, but it was hardly a clean performance. But Josh Jackson’s injury led to the insertion of Ryan Willis into the starting lineup, and the result was 332 passing yards along with three touchdown passes in the rout of Duke. Both programs feel more confident in their quarterback play than they did three weeks ago.
2. Virginia Tech offensive line vs. Notre Dame defensive line
Blocking hasn’t been a Virginia Tech strength in recent years, and there has been some shuffling on the left side of the line and at center early this season. With just eight sacks allowed, the unit has done a reasonably good job in pass protection, and at 204 rushing yards per game, holes have been available. But in its two games against Power 5 competition, Virginia Tech has rushed for just 97 yards per game. Furthermore, the Irish defensive front that will roll into Virginia Tech is unquestionably the best the Hokies have faced. Two Irish defensive linemen — Khalid Kareem and Jerry Tillery — have won national defensive player of the week honors this season. Defensive tackle Tillery leads the nation in sacks with seven, four of which he piled up against Stanford on Saturday. The quarterbacks will get much of the attention, but if Virginia Tech can’t neutralize the Notre Dame front, the Hokies have no shot.
3. Virginia Tech rush defense vs. Notre Dame backs
Book has been remarkable in his first two starts of the year. But he has been aided by an impressive running attack that has softened up the opposing defenses. The Irish ran for 241 yards against Wake Forest and another 272 against Stanford, 161 of which came from Dexter Williams in his first action of the season. But much like Virginia Tech’s offensive line going against Notre Dame, the Irish will find it much harder to establish a ground assault on the Hokies. Tech is fourth in America in rushing yards allowed, and the 137 by Old Dominion marked the only time an opponent has topped the century mark. If ND has no success rushing the ball, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster will send the house at Book whenever he can.
Notre Dame’s the better team. They have better talent and are rightly confident after the win over then-No. 7 Stanford. Book has changed the dynamic of the Irish offense, and the defense has been consistently disruptive all year. But last November, similar things were being said about Notre Dame as the Irish ventured down to Miami for a prime-time showdown with the Canes. And it was ugly from the start. The environment at Hard Rock Stadium overwhelmed the Irish, and a Miami team that crashed and burned thereafter thumped ND 41-8. Book didn’t start that game, but he played and threw a bad pick-6 at the end of the half. Notre Dame will encounter that same level of excitement at Lane Stadium on Saturday night, and if the Irish learned nothing from last year’s experience in Miami, they will be in big trouble. But I believe that disaster will be of benefit this time around. In a tight battle, Notre Dame comes out on top and remains in the early playoff conversation.
Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Virginia Tech 24
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.