After a bye week, Virginia Tech returns to Lane Stadium under the lights against #14 Notre Dame with a big opportunity to jump right back into the national picture over the next two weeks starting with this showdown with the Fighting Irish. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is looking for a big bounce back game after a home loss to Cincinnati last week has them on the verge of playoff elimination.
With that said, here are our three things to watch for the Hokies against Notre Dame.
1. Can Virginia Tech Find Some Offensive Consistency?
Consistency has been lacking from Virginia Tech's offense this season and is a main reason why the Hokies have only broken the 30-point boundary once in four games this season against Middle Tennessee. However, Tech will undoubtedly face their toughest defense of the season against an improving Notre Dame unit that has shown lots of improvement over their first 5 games under rising coaching star Marcus Freeman.
Tech's rushing attack has struggled the past couple of weeks with the Hokies averaging only 3.2 yards per carry against Richmond. While Tech was able to get their passing game going somewhat, it's clear that Tech's offense has to be a run-first attack and needs their ground game going well given the limitations that Braxton Burmeister has shown as a passer.
There's a few areas where Tech needs improvement starting with the offensive line where the injury to right tackle Silas Dzansi exposed some depth issues for Tech at the tackle position. If Dzansi is healthy and able to play, Tech can get back to their regular starting 5 which would be a massive boost going into this matchup and should boost the rushing attack.
Secondly, Tech has to get back to utilizing the read options and jet sweeps in multiple direction that set up jet sweep read options. Those type of plays that put the defense on the heels and make them think are when this Tech rushing attack has been at its best as we saw against UNC and as we haven't been seeing even called much since then. Brad Cornelsen has to let Burmeister run this read option rushing attack to prevent a strong Notre Dame defense from playing straight downhill attack especially in poor conditions.
Lastly, Tech's execution does also need to be a little better as a whole which goes beyond the rushing game into the passing game. Tech needs Burmeister to play more like the guy who was dominant in the first half against UNC and not miss the big play opportunities that come in the passing game while also needing their offensive line and running backs being effective on the ground.
If Tech can find some offensive consistency, the defense and special teams have proven that they are at the level to not only beat the Fighting Irish but go on a big run and be a top contender to win the ACC. If not, Tech will be looking for a new head coach in December.
2. Can Tech's Pass Rushers Rise to the Ocassion?
Notre Dame's quarterback situation is a mess with Brian Kelly not even naming publicly a starter though stating that he does have one named internally which would seem likely to be former backup Drew Pyne over initial starter Jack Coan given recent play though that position is a question mark regardless.
Tech's defensive line has definitely shown improvement and done fairly well at getting pressure especially in the opener against North Carolina when standout DEs Amare Barno and TyJuan Garbutt combined for 3.5 sacks. Since then, Barno has been kept quiet with only 4 tackles against Richmond and no tackles before then while Garbutt has continued to be solid.
Against a Notre Dame offensive line that has struggled and a Fighting Irish QB situation that is a mess, it is critical that the Hokies get their standout pass rushers going. Barno definitely has shown to be a guy who can have a few big games a year and can rise to the occasion when called upon.
Additionally, it wouldn't be surprising to see Justin Hamilton be aggressive given the strong play of his cornerbacks and bring an extra blitzer like Dax Hollifield who already has 3 sacks including at least 0.5 sacks in each game this season. That would provide a little more of a boost, but there's no doubt that Tech needs their star pass rushers on top form as they were against Sam Howell and UNC week 1.
3. Special Teams Will Be Key
Virginia Tech's special teams have been largely a strength so far with Tayvion Robinson looking like one of the best punt returners in America while Keshawn King has been strong returning kicks. Additionally, Peter Moore has done well in his first season as Tech's punter while the kick and punt coverage units have also done well when called upon.
In a game headlined by two strong defenses in potentially rainy conditions, special teams will undoubtedly make a difference especially where we may see plenty of field positions. For the Hokies, that means needing Moore and John Parker Romo being sharp while also having Robinson and King making a big play or 2 on special teams.
Robinson not only has had his 60-yard punt return TD against Richmond that proved crucial to win, but he also has been averaging 15 yards per punt return and should have had a second long return against Richmond if not for a minor penalty on it. King and Raheem Blackshear also each have a 50+ yard kick return and have shown big play ability when given the chance.
If Tech is going to win this game, special teams are going to be critical for getting the job done especially with the hidden yardage battle that will be very important given the offensive struggles and defensive strengths for both teams.