Two teams coming off emotional wins will face off under the lights on Saturday night when the sixth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish travel to Blacksburg for the first time ever to face the 24th-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies. The Irish broke open what had been a tight game against Stanford to pick up a 38-17 victory, while the Hokies traveled to Duke for a 31-14 victory.
Notre Dame’s win stopped a three-game losing streak against the Cardinal and kept them undefeated at 5-0. In Virginia Tech’s case, they got back on track after suffering an embarrassing upset loss the previous week and the subsequent dismissal of their top pass rusher, Trevon Hill. Whether or not the Hokies can again deliver a strong performance remains to be seen, but playing in front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience should have the juices flowing on both sides.
Some of the key matchups that deserve a closer look include:
QB Ian Book vs. Virginia Tech Defense
Since being handed the reins prior to the Wake Forest win, Book hasn’t looked back and has given the Irish offense a huge jolt in the process. Connecting on 49 of 67 for 603 yards and six touchdowns is the sort of electricity that could sustain Notre Dame for the remainder of the season, with Book gaining more confidence with each passing week.
The possibility exists that Book could potentially be even more prolific against a defense that allowed Old Dominion’s quarterback to shred them for 495 yards on Sept. 22. One of the major issues is that the Hokies secondary is a work in progress, with two key members having been dismissed during the offseason.
QB Ryan Willis vs. Notre Dame Defense
Willis is a Kansas transfer who was elevated to a starting role after Josh Jackson was sidelined indefinitely with a fractured left fibula. The two have compiled almost identical numbers, with Willis making his first Virginia Tech start a memorable one by throwing for 332 yard and three scores. The Irish need to make sure he’s not quite as prolific on third down as he was last week, when he racked up 113 yards on seven of 10 attempts.
If Notre Dame manages to extend their dominating second half performance against Stanford into this matchup, it will put another win in the victory column. A relentless pass rush, led by Jerry Tillery, is enough to shut down any quarterback, especially one that hasn’t had any sustained level of success like Willis.
WR Miles Boykin vs. CB Bryce Watts
After averaging just over two catches per game in the first four Irish contests, Boykin exploded with 11 receptions against Stanford and also reached the end zone for the first time this season. He’s no doubt looking forward to this matchup, with Book favoring the pass and the defense he’s facing having the potential to get torched.
Watts was a high school wideout, so he’s been on both sides of this matchup. Still, he was largely relegated to special teams last year and was one of the Hokie secondary that managed to give up 49 points to Old Dominion. He’s got five pass breakups this year, so he has the talent to deliver. Yet those skills will be put to the test against the surging Boykin.
CB Julian Love vs. WR Damon Hazelton
Love entered the Notre Dame history books with his 10th pass breakup of the season last week, passing Clarence Ellis for the career lead in that category. Consistent play throughout his Irish career has been Love’s calling card, though he’ll be giving three inches away to his matchup in this game, which makes it more of a challenge.
Hazelton is in his first year with the Hokies after sitting out 2017 following a transfer from Ball State. In his one previous season at the collegiate level, he grabbed 51 receptions and entered this year as a potential standout. At 6-foot-2, he offers a big target that has the ability to go deep. While he only has 15 catches in four games, four have gone for touchdowns and he’s averaging 23.2 on each of those receptions.
T Liam Eichenberg vs. DE Houshun Gaines
Eichenberg has continued to grow into his role, but won’t have Alex Bars by his side after the veteran guard was lost for the season with a knee injury against Stanford. While senior Trevor Ruhland will be his new cohort on the left side, he will still need help against one of the Hokies’ best pass rushers.
Gaines had a huge game against Duke under difficult personal circumstances related to his ailing mother, who passed away on Monday night. In that game, he was used more in coverage in an effort to make up for the loss of Hill, but still managed to collect 2.5 sacks on the night. Given his emotions entering this contest, he’s likely going to be highly motivated to perform at that same peak level.