Coming off their first loss of the season, Notre Dame enters their last game before their bye with serious questions at quarterback. The Irish have to sort those issues in an environment that figures to be loud and hostile, at least until the home offense shows that it too has its own problems offensively. Can the Irish bounce back and head into their bye week with that lone loss, or will the questions at quarterback bite them again this weekend?
What Worries Me This Week
Notre Dame’s quarterback position
The fact that we’re at a point in the season where Brian Kelly is not announcing a starting quarterback because there are that many questions about the position is far from ideal. At this point, all signs do seem to be pointing to Jack Coan starting again even though there felt to be a near universal sentiment that Drew Pyne should get the nod, but here we are. Whoever starts, it’s a bad position to be in week six, on the road, in Blacksburg.
If Notre Dame does go with Coan, I have some serious concerns since the offense just hasn’t moved the ball well with him leading the way since the Irish left Tallahassee. Tyler Buchner sparked the Irish against Toledo. Drew Pyne led the Irish as many points as Coan in half the time and then more points last week against Cincinnati. It’s fair to question whether or not the Irish will put up enough points to win with Coan at this point.
Virginia Tech’s pass rush
Notre Dame is statistically one of the worst programs in the nation at protecting the quarterback. Virginia is statistically one of the best teams at getting to the passer the Irish will face all season. That seems bad. Or, at the very least, not good. When Coan has been in the game, he’s been a magnet for opposing pass rushes. Pyne has been better against the rush than Coan, but again, signs point to Coan being QB1 again this weekend.
Sacks have been drive killers for Notre Dame repeatedly this year. This feels like it could be another week of that, given the strength versus weakness. If Notre Dame can limit them against the Hokies, they should win this one relatively easily, but that is not a given by any means.
Michael Mayer’s health
Michael Mayer should play against Virginia Tech, but nothing is certain. Even if he does, he will likely be limited and may be on and off the field. Notre Dame needs Mayer to be the best player on the field for them because he is, in fact, the best player on the field for them.
If Mayer has to come off the field early, Notre Dame will be in a bind at tight end this weekend.
Notre Dame’s offensive line
Because, of course, it does right now.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
Notre Dame’s ability to create havoc
Notre Dame’s havoc rate fell off last weekend against Cincy, but I expect it to pop back up this weekend against a pedestrian Virginia Tech offense. The Irish will need their defense to create some big-time negative plays like they did the last two weeks. The big plays were abundant against Wisconsin. They weren’t as plentiful against Cincinnati, but the only reason the Irish even made a run in the second half was because Isaiah Foskey forced a fumble that Drew White returned into Cincy territory to set up the Irish offense.
Virginia Tech has been pretty good at protecting the football, so turnovers might be tough to come by, but I expect the Irish defense to be in the backfield regularly on Saturday night.
Explosive plays from Virginia Tech
The Hokies don’t have a great offense and are not producing explosive plays this year. As well all know, that is the Achilles heel of the Irish defense at this point. That shouldn’t be a problem this weekend for Notre Dame. Virginia Tech might be able to string a few first downs together here and there, but I don’t see them hitting the big plays that Cincinnati did a week ago when they put the game out of reach.
This feels like a big Kyle Hamilton game too. However, given the lack of explosiveness from Virginia Tech, Marcus Freeman could let Hamilton roam a bit more than we’ve seen.
Winning the field position game
Unfortunately, I feel like this could be a dull, field position type of game. If it is, I like Notre Dame’s chances with Jay Bramblett. For some reason, it feels like Bramblett has one not great punt in him a week but then absolutely crushes every other one. That happened last week when his first punt netted less than 40 yards without a return but subsequently helped flip the field.
Yes, I am aware that it’s not great that we’re talking about a potential field position game right now. On a positive though, this week is the last strong defense the Irish will face for the rest of the season.
Players to Watch This Week
- Branden Lenzy – Please, please, please get Lenzy the ball either on a jet sweep, a wide receiver screen, or some sort of designed run. Use the man’s speed.
- Lorenzo Styles – He had a big third down conversion last week and could see more snaps this weekend.
- Chris Tyree – Virginia native returns home and I am a sucker for that narrative.
- Jordan Botelho – His role diminished last weekend, but it needs to be increasing each week.
- Kurt Hinish – The captain is back this weekend and it could make a big difference on the sideline.
On this week’s preview pod, I felt a lot better about this game than I am now. I think Notre Dame hits a couple of big plays but otherwise struggles offensively for most of the game. Defensively, I feel good about Notre Dame containing Virginia Tech and limiting their points. Even if the Hokies get to the redzone, I feel good about the Irish defense holding them to field goals when they do.
Notre Dame 17, Virginia Tech 9