With the Notre Dame Fighting Irish coming to Blacksburg for the first time ever, Virginia Tech will need to bring nothing short of their “A” game.
The Irish come into this matchup ranked #6 and undefeated.
They are led by junior quarterback Ian Book, who is on an incredible run after replacing Brandon Wimbush during the fourth quarter of the third game of the season. In two starts, Book has thrown for 603 yards and six touchdowns.
After beating previously seventh-ranked Stanford by three touchdowns last week, Notre Dame has shown that they are a true playoff contender. Here are three potential X-Factors for the Hokies to pull off the upset:
1. The Hokies’ Front Seven
With a quarterback like Book in the opposing backfield, a strong pass rush is essential. Book has been nearly flawless this season, throwing no interceptions thus far. If the Hokies want to win this game, that will probably have to change. The best way to ensure that happens is to get as much pressure on Ian Book as possible.
The Hokies’ front line is coming off a good performance against Duke last weekend. They accumulated eight tackles for loss, three of which were sacks. Houshun Gaines and Co. will need to bring even more intensity in order to get to Book. Whether it’s Gaines and Emmanuel Belmar from the outside, Ricky Walker, Vinny Mihota and Jarrod Hewitt from the inside, or Khalil Ladler from the whip, the Hokies will need a balanced but strong pass rush.
The Hokies’ secondary is not experienced enough to slow down Notre Dame’s talented receivers on their own so they will need help from their front seven. Without any pressure, Ian Book will pick this Virginia Tech defense apart, much like ODU’s Blake LaRussa.
2. Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease
The one negative about the Duke win was the Hokies’ lack of a running game. Quarterback Ryan Willis was able to exploit a weak Duke secondary with his passes, but it will be hard for him to do the same to a more talented Notre Dame defense. Tailbacks Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease will need to find holes and break off big gains in order to establish a running game and keep the defense guessing. Against Duke, McClease and Peoples gained only 74 yards on 26 carries, an average of fewer than three yards per rush. That simply will not cut it against Notre Dame.
These two backs are fully capable of putting up better numbers, and with some sort of help from the offensive line, there is plenty of hope for them. Peoples and McClease bring a very balanced running approach, with Peoples being a ground-and-pound type running back whose stature is often compared to that of a bowling ball, and McClease being a shiftier back who is great and finding holes and exploiting them with his speed.
Both backs share one quality: they refuse to be tackled. They will need to bring that same stubbornness to the stadium on Saturday if they hope to make an impact on this game and give Willis some breathing room.
3. Hezekiah Grimsley
Should that running game be established, Ryan Willis will have the opportunity to dominate this Notre Dame defense in a similar fashion to Duke. A large part of this dominance will have to come from Hezekiah Grimsley, the Hokies’ top slot receiver.
The Irish have two strong corners on the outside that will make it harder for receivers Damon Hazleton and Eric Kumah to get as much separation as they did against Duke. However, the nickel back position is one that Notre Dame has struggled to find consistency in. Senior Shaun Crawford tore his ACL before the season started, so freshman Houston Griffith and senior Nick Coleman have had to split time in his absence, with neither gaining any ground. This will likely be the most favorable matchup the Hokies have against the Irish defense, and Grimsley and Willis should look to exploit that.
Grimsley is coming off a decent performance against Duke. He only had two catches, but they were for a combined 40 yards, including a long of 24. Should he find more openings against an inconsistent nickel back, Willis can feed him the ball more than just twice with Grimsley having the potential to have a career day against the Irish.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that Notre Dame is the best team the Hokies have faced all season. With a strong defense and a quarterback who is on fire, a lot of pieces will have to fall into place in order for the Irish to fall. Should the Hokies get pressure on Ian Book, establish a strong run game, and exploit the matchup in the slot, they have a great chance to get the win under the lights of Lane Stadium.