After a big bounce-back win over previously ranked Duke last week, 24th-ranked Virginia Tech hosts undefeated, sixth-ranked Notre Dame in one of three ranked matchups across college football. Ahead of the game, our Jackson Pugh breaks down 5 things to know about the #6 Fighting Irish.
1. Reading Defenses like a Book
Every good book always takes an unexpected turn, and the story of this Notre Dame offense is no different. Before the season, Irish fans were drooling over the return of quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Known for his strong arm and excellent running ability, Wimbush was ranked as the number 2 dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school. He got his first opportunity to start in 2017, and he did not disappoint, setting the Notre Dame season record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 803. Although he completed less than half of his passes, his decision making was solid, as he scored 30 total touchdowns with just 6 interceptions.
And in the first half of the first game- of 2018, it looked like Wimbush was ready to dominate defenses for a second year. Against a stingy Michigan defense, Wimbush was 10-of-15 for 148 yards and a score in the first half. The Irish lead 21-3; that would be the last moment of glory for Wimbush, who struggled from that point on.
In the second half, Wimbush was 2-for-7 for just 22 yards. Ever since that first half against the Wolverines, Wimbush has thrown for no touchdowns, four interceptions, and has completed just 52 % of his passes. After the Irish put together two and a half games of unspectacular football, in which they only outscored Michigan, Ball State and Vanderbilt 49-47, Brian Kelly felt he needed a quarterback change.
In came sophomore quarterback Ian Book, and the tide would turn for the Irish offense the next two weeks. Book impressed immediately, going 25-of-34 for 325 yards and two touchdowns in his first start against Wake Forest. He was even better last week against a very good Stanford defense, throwing 4 TD's and no interceptions in the Irish's 38-17 rout.
While Book doesn't have the same speed as Wimbush, he still has the ability to escape pressure do damage with his legs. However, the Hokies secondary will have to be ready for their toughest test of the season so far, as they are going up against a quarterback who is red-hot.
They will also have to go up against big, physical recievers, as the Irish feature three 6-foot-4 wideouts in Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, and Alize Mack.
2. Notre Defense
Even through Wimbush's struggles, the Irish still remain undefeated. Why: their defense has come through. A unit that returned 9 starters has not disappointed, as they give up just 18.8 points per game, despite facing some quality opponents. Only once this season have the Fighting Irish given up more than 20 points.
The Irish's biggest strength is the defensive line, which features three four-star recruits. Senior DT Jerry Tillery has been an absolute stalwart, gaining 7 sacks on the season thus far, an impressive feat for an interior lineman.
Last week against Stanford, the Irish held the Cardinal to -13 yards rushing in the second half, an impressive stat given the fact that it came against a rushing attack with preseason Heisman contender Bryce Love. The Irish also held Michigan RB Karan Higdon, who averages almost 100 yards per game, to a measly 72 yards on 21 attempts.
While Virginia Tech has had a pretty good rushing attack overall, it will be hard to create holes against this front four. Don't expect the Red Sea to part like it did against Florida State and Old Dominion, as the Hokies will have to rely on their passing game from Ryan Willis.
3. The RB Misfortunes; Next Man Up
Despite losing Josh Adams to the 2018 NFL draft, the Irish still had a lot a reason to believe in their run game. The Irish featured a talented three-headed monster at running back with Dexter Williams, Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong. However, much like that verse in The Lion King, the trios down to two... or one, as the injury bug has infected the Irish backfield thus far.
Notre Dame was not too reliant on their running backs early on, as Brandon Wimbush was taking the majority of the carries. However, that changed in week three, as Tony Jones Jr. ran for 118 against Vanderbilt.
Jafar Armstrong, who many thought would be a wide receiver to start the year, has been a pleasant surprise thus far. He has run for 245 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards-per-carry. However, misfortune struck again as Armstrong suffered a leg injury. The trio was then down to two.
Right as soon as Jones was making his mark, he suffered a knee infection in the game against Stanford. Jones will have to undergo minor surgery and will miss this game.
The duo is now down to one: senior Dexter Williams. Much like the two above, Williams has not disappointed, as he ran for 161 yards last week against Stanford. Despite being the expected starter, it was Williams' first appearance of the season. Expect him to take the bulk of the carries against the Hokies.
Also, don't rule out the possibility of Brian Kelly putting in Brandon Wimbush at times to try to get the running game going.
Another injury to take into account is starting guard Alex Bars, a senior. Expect that to have an impact on the Irish running game.
4. Feature Player: DT Jerry Tillery
As mentioned above, the shining star of this Notre Dame defensive line is Jerry Tillery. The 6-7, 299 pound lineman surprised many when he decided to return for his senior season, as he would have been a high pick in the 2018 draft. This season, he will have to compete with a deep defensive line class that features Nick Bosa, Ed Oliver, Rashan Gary, and the Clemson defensive line. Even with the fierce competition, Tillery is still standing out statistically.
Tillery currently leads the nation in sacks with seven. Four of those came last week against Stanford, which earned him the Walter Camp Award for Defensive Player of the Week.
He has also forced three fumbles on the year, including one that sealed the game against Michigan. For as big as he is, Tillery is a force to be reckoned with in the backfield.
According to CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso, Tillery has Malik Jackson upside. "Despite having the body type of a block-eating defensive end for a traditional 3-4 base, Tillery's hips are super fluid, and it's with impeccable lateral agility, active hands, and long arms that he wins against more compact guards on a regular basis. Even given his height, Tillery doesn't play that high. He's fundamentally sound stacking and shedding blocks against he run, and he covers ground quickly with long strides after he knifes through gaps to be a disruptive pass-rusher" (CBS Sports).
Brain Kelly also has had plenty of positive things to say about Tillery. "His impact as a leader in our football program has probably elevated itself, because his worth ethic is so much better than it's ever been," Kelly said. (ABC News)
Expect the Hokie offensive line to have their hands full, especially in the interior.
5. Crowd Noise
To Notre Dame's credit, they have taken care of business against high level competition. That's why they are 5-0 and ranked 6th in the country. However, the Irish still have one glaring question to answer: can they win a primetime game away from South Bend.
It's safe to say that the Fighting Irish tend to forget their four-leaf clover when they leave the state of Indiana. According to Sports-Reference, Notre Dame is just 1-9 vs ranked opponents in true road games since 2013 with the only win being at Temple in 2015. The games haven't been particularly close either as the Irish have lost those 9 games by an average of 13.2 points per game.
The game against Miami last year exemplified Notre Dame's road woes. The Irish came into South Beach fresh off an 8-1 record, with only a 1-point loss to runner-up Georgia. As soon as the ball was kicked, the game was over as Miami blew out Notre Dame 41-8.
Much like programs such as Texas, Michigan, Nebraska and USC, Notre Dame is trying restore its former glory, turning back into the dominant program it once was. Over the Brain Kelly era, Notre Dame has flirted with greatness, as the Irish went to the National Championship game in 2012. However, to take the next step forward, Notre Dame will have to win a primetime game on the road.
With those numbers taken into account, it was surprising to see Irish LT Liam Eichenberg go on Twitter and say "It’s gonna be loud. But our stadium is loud. I’m excited to go in there, kick the s*** out of them, get a win, then get out of there." Also, quite a bold statement from a guy who has never played a game at Virginia Tech.
Indeed, It would be a Notre Shame if Virginia Tech were to give Notre Dame a rare road win vs. a ranked opponent. Sorry, but bad road performances deserve a bad pun or two.
Photo Credit: Jake Roth
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