Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
Virginia Tech, fresh off its biggest win of the season two weeks ago over North Carolina, heads to South Bend this Saturday to take on #16 Notre Dame. While the Hokies had a bye week to heal up following a hard-fought game against the Tar Heels two weekends ago, the Irish didn't have the luxury. The Irish are licking their wounds from a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan that left more questions than answers. Notre Dame fell to Michigan in a monsoon-laden blowout 45-14 last Saturday night.
While the Irish certainly aren't as bad as they showed last Saturday, they are certainly far from unbeatable. However, Notre Dame has a significant talent advantage in many areas that the Hokies will need to be prepared for on Saturday afternoon in South Bend. ND is, after all, a 17-point favorite.
Here are the three keys for a Virginia Tech upset.
1. Containing Notre Dame TE Cole Kmet
Easier said than done here. Since returning from injury, Kmet has been one of Notre Dame's most lethal offensive weapons, emerging as one of the nation's top tight ends in 2019. Kmet, a 6'5", 250 lbs. junior has reeled in 43 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns in the five games that he has played in this season. Given the Irish's lack of an explosive passing game, Kmet has been a weapon across the middle who possesses traits that liken him to Rob Gronkowski.
Despite the Virginia Tech secondary beginning to play better in the middle of this season, the Hokies do not have many members of the defense who can match-up for four quarters with Kmet. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster will have to get creative in slowing down Notre Dame's physical tight end in the passing game.
In all likelihood, the Hokies will shadow Kmet and bracket the coverage with plenty of help over the top for whoever ends up drawing Kmet on the defensive side of the football. Defensive back Chamarri Conner seems like one candidate to draw Kmet given his physical style of play and ability to contend with bigger receivers in coverage. He's been a huge boost for the Hokies' secondary in 2019, but even so, it will be a tall order to slow down the connection between Notre Dame QB Ian Book and a player of Kmet's size and stature.
It will be difficult to outright stop Kmet, but slowing him down will be one of the big keys for Virginia Tech's defense on Saturday.
2. Turnover Margin
The story of Virginia Tech's season has been the turnover bug on offense. The five turnovers against Boston College led to a brutal season-opening loss. The fumbles against Old Dominion led to a comeback by the Monarchs in a game that was all-but decided -- the Hokies won close. The fumble on the exchange between Hendon Hooker and Keshawn King against Duke opened the flood gates for a blowout loss at Lane Stadium.
All in all, the issues with Virginia Tech's turnovers on offense, and lack of turnovers on defense, led to Tech bottoming out as one of the nation's worst teams in regards to the turnover margin. The Hokies were -8 in the turnover margin through four games, which ranked nearly last out of 130 teams in the FBS.
However, things have changed for the better.
Since the Duke game, Virginia Tech is +3 in the turnover margin, with the five takeaways against Miami leading to the change in fortune statistically. Virginia Tech's defense overall has played much better over the last three games, but has not created as many turnovers as many would like to see.
The single biggest difference in the first four games of the season versus the last three is the quarterback change from Ryan Willis to Hendon Hooker. Willis turned the ball over seemingly at will when he was the starter, while Hooker has done a much better job at protecting the rock since he took the reigns as the team's starting quarterback.
No matter who plays quarterback on Saturday in South Bend (Hooker still nursing a sore knee, and Patterson is taking first-team practice reps), the emphasis will once again have to be on protecting the football. Tech is facing one of college football's best in regards to the turnover margin.
At +8, Notre Dame is seventh in the FBS in the turnover margin, and at 14 takeaways, the Irish defense ranks in a tie for 23rd. The defense will turn you over at will if you're not careful, and Virginia Tech will need to operate offensively with that at the forefront of its mind.
3. Stop the Run
The Virginia Tech defense needs to find a way to limit the Notre Dame rushing attack. A major reason why Notre Dame has not lived up to its offensive standard this year is due in part to the struggles it has endured running the football consistently.
After losing Dexter Williams to graduation off last year's roster, the Irish have not run the football nearly as well as a year ago. Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong have received the bulk of the carries, but both have been banged up at different times. As a result, added pressure has been put on the shoulders of Notre Dame QB Ian Book. While Book's numbers don't look significantly different from a year ago, his performance against tougher competition has yielded some staggering results.
ND’s QB Ian Book has good stats, but deeper dive:— Matej Sis (@MatejS247) October 30, 2019
vs. UNM & BGSU - 31-44 (70.5%) 621 yards, 10 TDs 0 INTs - 78.55 QBR
vs. Everyone Else (5 games)- 85-152 (55.9%) 871 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs - 66.02 QBR
Book, especially as a downfield passer, has left much to be desired. Containing the running game will put the focus solely on Book, whose success passing the ball has been largely confined to areas inside of 15 yards.
Slow down the run, and make Ian Book beat you for four quarters. That is the blueprint to keep this game interesting for four quarters and give Tech a legitimate chance to pull off the upset.