Notre Dame limps back into Notre Dame Stadium this weekend following last week’s meltdown in Ann Arbor. Standing in their way this weekend is a 5-2 Virginia Tech team coming off of a bye week. We know this season can go in one of two directions right now, and we’ll know by about halftime of tomorrow’s game to know which way the Irish are headed. So which way do I see this going? Let’s dive in.
What I’m Worried About This Week
The Michigan hangover. The one way Notre Dame loses this game is if they lose to Michigan again. The embarrassment of last week can linger and cause this team to lose another game. Virginia Tech is a pretty good team, but Notre Dame should beat them. If they don’t, give Michigan an assist on this one, but this is a game that no one thought would be a possible loss in the preseason. The fact that Notre Dame is still a 17.5 point favorite despite getting shredded by Michigan last weekend backs up the difference in talent in these teams.
Some Brian Kelly teams have spiraled out of control after performances like we saw last weekend. We’ll see if this is another one of those teams. Given the number of upperclassmen and the experience of this team, I don’t think this is one of those teams; but I do believe it is possible, and it has me worried.
Another slow start. Notre Dame has to get off to a hot start in this one to put the stink from last weekend behind them. If they start slow again, the home crowd is going to get restless, and you will hear some boos. Running a tempo offense out of the gates could help the Irish start fast, but there haven’t been indicators that Kelly and Chip Long are willing to do that.
Jafar Armstrong. The Notre Dame staff keeps saying that Jafar Armstrong is fully healthy, but we barely saw him in his return against USC. Then last week in need of a spark, we still barely saw any of Jafar Armstrong. We heard a lot about how the two-back sets were going to be a big part of the Irish offense this year, but in two games after returning from injury, we’ve barely seen him utilized.
If Armstrong is fully healthy like the staff says, why haven’t we seen more of him? With Tony Jones Jr banged up and questionable for this week, if we don’t see a lot of Armstrong, then we know there is more than meets the eye here.
The weather in South Bend this weekend. The chance for rain right now is still relatively low at ~35%, but that is up from 20% earlier in the week. If that keeps trending upwards and it rains tomorrow, I am going to have flashbacks to last weekend and reach for some double IPAs.
What I’m Not Worried About This Weekend
Ian Book. After how bad Book looked last week and after opening questioning whether or not Kelly should consider a quarterback change, why I am not worried about Ian Book this week? First, because he can’t possibly play worse than last weekend, and second, there is a pretty good buzz among the players on social media that they are rallying around their quarterback too. There’s a real “win one for Book(er)” possibility this weekend.
Facing a Virginia Tech defense that is nowhere close to the Michigan defense could also just be what the doctor ordered. One of the last really great performances we have seen from Book came against Tech last year in Blacksburg. This year he gets them at home at a time when he needs a bounce-back game.
Virginia Tech’s defense. Bud Foster is a great defensive coordinator. Maybe one of the best the game has seen the last quarter-century. That said, his defense this year is not a vintage Bud Foster defense. The Hokies are 66th nationally in total defense despite not playing a tough slate of games. Boston College, Old Dominion, Furman, Duke, Miami, Rhode Island, and North Carolina, and they are 66th in total defense after that murder’s row.
The Hokie defense is giving up 253 yards and 2 TDs a game this year. That is part of the reason why I think Book will actually bounce back this week.
Notre Dame’s defense. Michigan ran the ball all over Notre Dame all night long last weekend. Tackling was the worst we’ve seen since the Vangorder terrorized Notre Dame’s sidelines. The streak of giving up less than 30 points in a game vanished with a 45 point outburst by the Wolverines.
That was an outlier for the Notre Dame defense, though. Other than the first 15 minutes against Louisville, Clark Lea‘s Notre Dame defense has been at worst solid this year. The Notre Dame defense will bounce back this week, and the Virginia Tech offense isn’t particularly explosive or scary. They are good enough to put a couple of drives together, but not good enough to put consistent pressure on the Irish defense.
This could be a similar performance to what we saw against Virginia back in September – especially if the defense comes out and plays ticked off.
The pressure being off of Notre Dame. This one might sound weird, but the goal all season has been the playoffs. Ever since the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson, the goal has been getting back to the Playoffs and winning this time. One reaction to that by the team could be to give up since that is no longer possible.
The other way to look at this, however, is now the pressure is entirely off of Notre Dame. I feel like the Irish will come out looser than we’ve seen this year now that the weight of the world is no longer on their shoulders. Now there’s a good argument to be made about why the pressure might have gotten to them, but I feel like we will see them respond well to the embarrassment of last week.
Players I’m Watching This Weekend
- Phil Jurkovec – If Book does struggle this week, watch for Jurkovec. In any event, he needs to get more live reps. Kelly needs to find a way to get the sophomore more reps to see what they have in him because even with a bounce-back for Book, we generally know what we have there.
- Jafar Armstrong – Will we finally see Notre Dame use him this week? I don’t know. I hope so, but I just don’t know.
- Braden Lenzy – With Michael Young gone, Lenzy knows that the opportunity is there to start the rest of the year. Notre Dame has to find more ways to get the ball in his hands.
- Julian Okwara & Khalid Kareem – Notre Dame needs its senior captains to step up this weekend and play like they did against Virginia. This is a week where Notre Dame needs these two preseason All-Americans to start playing somewhere close to that level.
- Chase Claypool – If Book gets going again, Claypool needs to be heavily involved. We still haven’t seen a monster game from him. Please let this be the week.
So I am weirdly optimistic about this week. I felt bad about both of the last two games, but this week I kind of feel alright. Weird, right? All signs are pointing to Notre Dame not having a great performance. Everyone is saying the Irish are on upset alert. Book isn’t seeing wide-open receivers in a clean pocket right now. And yet, here I am oddly feeling reasonably confident that Notre Dame comes out and bounces back this weekend.
Not only do I think Notre Dame wins, I think they cover the big spread.
Notre Dame 42, Virginia Tech 21