The #24 Virginia Tech Hokies host the #6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Blacksburg this Saturday night in one of the most highly anticipated games in Lane Stadium this decade. In order to pull off the upset, the Hokies will need to focus on winning these three key matchups.
Virginia Tech Defensive Line vs. Notre Dame Offensive Line
It's no secret that Virginia Tech has suffered some attrition on the defensive line this season. Most recently, Justin Fuente dismissed Trevon Hill from the team
, forcing Emmanuel Belmar into a starting defensive end role against Duke.
Belmar held his own against Duke, producing three tackles in his second career start. However, he was not an explosive force like Trevon Hill has been. Belmar has yet to record a sack or a tackle for loss in his career. That will have to change for the Hokies to beat elite teams like the Fighting Irish.
In contrast, at the other defensive end spot, Houshun Gaines was a very disruptive force. At a time when the Hokies needed Gaines to step us as the number one defensive end, he did just that, recording 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss last Saturday.
While the offensive line was seen as a strength for Notre Dame this year, they suffered a crucial loss this week. The Irish announced that Alex Bars, an offensive captain who spent the majority of his time at left guard this year, is out for the season with an ACL/MCL injury.
This could create an opening for Virginia Tech's star defensive tackle Ricky Walker. As one of the only senior members of the Hokies' defense, Walker has 22 career tackles for loss and 6.5 career sacks. The expected replacement at left guard for Notre Dame, redshirt junior Trevor Ruhland, has no career starts. Expect the Hokies to pit Walker against Ruhland to try and disrupt the Notre Dame offense.
The defensive line's responsibility in this game is twofold. First, they need to try and force Ian Book to throw by stopping the run game. That's no easy task against a Notre Dame team who ran a whopping 55 times for 272 yards against Stanford
The Hokies run defense has also been stout, though. Virginia Tech has only allowed 84 rush yards per game
, which is good for 4th best in the nation. Opponents are also running for only 2.65 yards per carry.
Second, the Hokies need to pressure Ian Book on the pass rush. Forcing Book to throw is a great step, but Tech also needs to make sure his receivers don't have too much time to get free. This brings us to our next matchup...
Miles Boykin vs. Virginia Tech Corners
Miles Boykin is a serious threat at receiver for Notre Dame. Last week against Stanford
, he had 11 catches for 144 yards and a TD. At 6'4" and 228 pounds, Boykin is exactly the type of receiver that has given Virginia Tech trouble this year.
It's not clear who the Hokies will put on Boykin. Neither Caleb Farley nor Bryce Watts have shown exceptional coverage skills in man to man, though both were improved last week.
Bryce Watts did look like the superior corner, at least last week, which he really should be. Farley is a great athlete, but he was a high school QB and a wide receiver just a year ago at Virginia Tech. It's going to take some time for him to adjust, whereas Watts should be more comfortable.
Even though Watts did not have any tackles last week, he was much better in coverage, recording 3 pass breakups
against a good quarterback in Daniel Jones though he was inconsistent at times early on. Having Divine Deablo back at free safety also seemed to give Watts and Farley some more confidence.
In all likelihood, the Fighting Irish are going to hit a couple of big pass plays on Saturday. We saw it against Old Dominion, and Notre Dame has far better athletes than those receivers. The key for the Hokies will be limiting those big plays as much as possible.
Virginia Tech Running Backs vs. Notre Dame Defensive Line
Just as it is important for the Hokies to limit the run game for Notre Dame, it is paramount to get Steven Peoples and/or Deshawn McClease going early.
Notre Dame's rush defense has not been nearly as good as the Hokies, as a whole. The Irish are giving up 127 yards per game on the ground, putting them outside the top 40
in rush defense.
That said, Notre Dame held Bryce Love, one of the most versatile running backs in the country, to 73 yards on 17 carries. Add in the sacks, and Stanford had a measly 55 rushing yards last week. It seems as if the Irish's rush defense is trending up at the right time.
As far as Virginia Tech, it has really been a tale of two teams in the running game. In the yards per carry department, the Hokies are looking good. McClease has 214 yards on 45 carries, giving him 4.8 yards per carry.
Peoples has been even better, averaging 5.5 YPC with 302 yards on 55 carries. Yet both running backs have been hit or miss, just like the Hokies rushing offense as a whole.
Against William and Mary and Old Dominion, the Hokies average 311.5 rush yards per game. However, in their two games against Power 5 opponents (Duke and Florida State), Virginia Tech only mustered 96.5 yards a game on the ground, and even that number is inflated somewhat by garbage time runs.
In order to have a good chance on Saturday night, Virginia Tech is going to have to find a way to transfer their rushing success against lesser teams to a much bigger stage.
Ryan Willis is much better on play action and run-pass options than he is just dropping back every time. If Willis is forced to throw more times than Fuente and the staff would like, that's when the turnovers become a concern. Against a top 10 team like Notre Dame, it will be extremely important for Virginia Tech to have a balanced offensive attack.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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