Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
The Opposing 5 returns this week as Virginia Tech faces their first ranked opponent of the season in Notre Dame. Joining us this week is Tim O'Malley Of Irish Illustrated. We appreciate Tim for joining us and encourage you to follow him @TimOMalleyND.
With that said, let's get into this week's Q&A on the Fighting Irish ahead of Saturday's game.
1. What went wrong for Notre Dame at Michigan and was it a one time deal or a more serious issue?
It’s not a one-time deal for Irish fans because it also happened two years ago at Miami when Notre Dame was ranked No. 3 and in Playoff poll position, but in terms of 2019, I don’t think you’ll see anything resembling that debacle again from the Irish.
The offense lost that game but it was the defense let the program down. The only team to score 30 points previously on the Clark Lea coordinated defense was Clemson—and Michigan is no Clemson. The unit’s effort, lack of tackling, and grace under pressure was puzzling. You’re likely to see an inspired effort from this group Saturday against the Hokies.
But it’s hard to maintain that for four quarters, and I expect Virginia Tech’s passing game to have success against the Irish. The caveat to that: you saw what the defensive line did to Virginia a month ago in the second half…they’re definitely capable of that again.
2. Why has Ian Book and the Notre Dame offense regressed this season?
Book was the team’s MVP last season but he had two weaknesses nonetheless:
- Recognizing pre-snap pressures
- He wasn’t accurate downfield
This season, he’s been inconsistent with the former, hesitant (albeit more accurate) regarding the latter, and exacerbated both with general shakiness in the pocket, even when he hangs in it.
The offense is without graduates Dexter Williams and Miles Boykin, two difference-makers, but there’s plenty of talent. (And every playoff teams loses talent, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the playoffs.)
Irish fans would argue offensive coordinator Chip Long isn’t using his weapons correctly, especially future NFL tight end Cole Kmet who has been productive since returning from a broken collarbone in time to face Georgia (9 rec. 108 yards) but not the down-the-seams force most expected.
Finally, the offensive line has had its moments: Louisville in the first quarter, Virginia in the second half, USC throughout—but it was also overrun at Michigan, played spotty vs New Mexico (which just looks ridiculous in print) and was not trusted to run block at Georgia (14 rushing attempts).
As a unit, they’re capable of 42 points Saturday…or 24.
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this defense?
It’s not as consistent as Irish fans expected.
- The pass rush has been dominant (Virginia)
- The rush defense can be outstanding (Georgia)
- The scheme ingenious (first half vs. USC, switching to a 3-down front and doubling the Trojans best receiver)
But they stunk in the first half against Virginia, ditto the first quarter at Louisville, and were overrun in the second stanza against USC. (Not many complaints from Athens…innumerable in Ann Arbor.)
It’s not the type of rock-solid unit that stopped the run and thus destroyed opposing passers on third down to forge a playoff berth last season.
New starters are playing better than expected: notably DT Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and LB Asmar Bilal, but the expected standouts have not played to their hype: DE Julian Okwara and CB Troy Pride are the prime examples.
Neither is bad…neither is turning heads as they did last season.
It’s still the best unit on the team, and on a good day, can play with anyone with the obvious exception of the nation’s Top 5 offenses, but more holes have been exposed than reasonably expected entering November.
4. What does Virginia Tech need to do well to pull off the upset?
Run the ball, because if the Hokies can get the Irish off-balance up front, it will bode well for their downfield passing game thereafter. Defensively, pressuring Book is Job No. 1…and 2-3-4-5-6.
Players that could damage the Hokies defense are the aforementioned Kmet (#84), Chase Claypool (#83) and, at least theoretically, a healthy Jafar Armstrong (#8), now three weeks removed from his first taste of action (Oct. 12) after learning an abdominal muscle in the opener.
Armstrong was supposed to be one of Notre Dame’s top three weapons this season—a converted receiver and thus dual-threat runner out of the backfield.
5. What are the keys to the game for Notre Dame?
A quick start offensively and (an expected) return to normalcy on the defensive side.
(If Va. Tech takes an early lead and Ian Book struggles, you’ll hear boos directed to offensive coordinator Chip Long (and Book) from the home crowd that is reeling from the performance at Michigan.)
The offense will have its inefficiencies, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t produce its requisite three touchdowns plus a few field goals as Jonathan Doerer—another purported pre-season weakness—has been outstanding.
Defensively, prior to the Michigan game, I wouldn’t have thought much about this matchup, but the Hendon Hooker-led offense could do damage against a Notre Dame defense that has shown vulnerability both against the run and in the myriad one-on-one downfield passes that occur against top offenses each week.
Hokies fans should be wary of two defenders in ‘obvious’ passing situations: #20 Shaun Crawford (CB, S, Nickel) and 6’4” 210-pound true freshman safety Kyle Hamilton (#14) — a future All-American.
I just finished a prediction for Irish Illustrated and began with the following:
“For the first time since early October 2016 (post-VanGorder firing), I feel like I’m offering subscribers a guess rather than a reasoned, focused projection.”
So I don’t know.
I don’t know if you’ll see a wounded animal Notre Dame team or instead one that, all week, prepared for a game with the playoffs out of reach for only the third game since the outset of 2017. (Incredible accomplishment…so what are they focused on now?)
I assume the defense will respond with a strong effort and that the offense will come out hot…it’s the middle two quarters offensively that will determine if the fourth quarter is close to the 17.5-point spread listed, or instead a final possessions contest on an uncomfortably cold afternoon in South Bend.
Oddly, I had this pegged as Notre Dame’s ‘trap game” in the pre-season because it would A.) be coming off a celebratory win at UM and thus in the playoff hunt, or B.) devastated and downtrodden by a close loss it endured in the Big House.
Well it’s neither.
My guess is 30-21 Notre Dame. (Can’t imagine the fan base’s reaction should the Irish lose again.)