Fresh off one of the most impressive wins of the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame travels to Blacksburg this weekend for the first time in program history for their first true road test of the season. Notre Dame technically was on the road once already, but Wake Forest hardly put up a fight two weeks ago. This weekend will be different with Notre Dame playing in one of the toughest environments in all of college football. A win, and the the sky is the limit for this squad. Let’s dig in to what the Irish need to do to make that happen.
What Worries Me This Weekend
We’ve been hearing the word “chaos” ever since Notre Dame traveled to Miami last November firmly in the playoff mix and left on the short end of an old fashion butt whopping. The Irish looked like deer in headlights in Hard Rock Stadium that night and each turnover only compounded the issue.
Brian Kelly and Notre Dame made practicing under chaos situations a focus all off-season. Practicing with loud music or with a soccer ball or whatever other situation the staff threw at the team can’t 100% replicate the environment Notre Dame faces tomorrow. Yes they practiced this week at 115 decibels and with Enter Sandman blaring but I’ll quote the great Allen Iverson here and say, we talkin’ bout practice.
The game itself is a whole other beast. How Notre Dame responds to the environment will determine the outcome. In fact, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the first 5-10 minutes of the game will let us know how this one will play out.
Full disclosure: I am entirely tired of hearing the word chaos.
The Body Blow Theory
Notre Dame paid the price for beating Stanford last week. Alex Bars got injured for the year. Tony Jones Jr is banged up though he will play. Khlaid Kareem was on the turf multiple times and was in and out of the lineup throughout the night. Playing Stanford, even when you beat them soundly, takes its toll because it is a physical game.
Luckily for Notre Dame, the Irish defense did such a phenomenal job in the 4th quarter that Stanford only ran a total of 7 plays the entire last quarter of the game. Still, the physicality of the game takes it toll every year so there could be some residual hangover into this week.
Game 1 Post Alex Bars Injury
Trevor Ruhland has played well when called upon this year, but he just isn’t Alex Bars. That isn’t a knock on Ruhland in anyway. It’s just impossible to replace a 5th year senior captain at LG who was in his 3rd year starting with someone who will be making the 2nd start of his career this weekend.
Ruhland is a different kind of player than Bars. He’s smaller but maybe a tick quicker as well. At 295 lbs vs. 315 lbs for Bars though, he doesn’t bring quite the same physicality as Bars. Aaron Banks will get some playing time as well and is quite a bit larger than Ruhland, but he also has very minimal playing time. Banks is the longer term answer at LG for the Irish, but for this weekend, Ruhland is the guy. He has shown that he is more than capable of playing well, but making a second career start on the road in a place like Lane Stadium is a concern.
Being on the Road
Notre Dame is 1-9 on the road since the start of the 2013 season against ranked teams. The lone win came last year at Michigan State so many of the players on this team were apart of that victory. Only problem is those same players were also apart of the 41-8 beating Notre Dame took at Miami in Hard Rock Stadium last year as well. Two of Notre Dame’s three losses in 2017 came on the road to ranked teams. In 2015, both of Notre Dame’s regular season losses were to ranked teams on the road – Stanford and Clemson.
In short, Notre Dame has not played well on the road in recent years. Now, that 1-9 record also includes to abomination of the 2016 season so the numbers are skewed just a bit, but still, 1 win over a ranked opponent on the road in 5+ seasons is not good.
Lane Stadium is not an easy place to play – especially at night. Enter Sandman will play at the start and that place will be absolutely rocking. Notre Dame can’t let the situation get too big for them and has to weather the storm early on.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Weekend
In two games Book has accounted for nine Notre Dame touchdowns (6 passing and 3 rushing) and maybe just as importantly, he has not turned the ball over in two starts. When he was called upon in relief of Wimbush in Miami last year that wasn’t the case and Book threw a crippling interception before things got out of control. In that game though Book was not prepared to play and didn’t practice all week as the starter.
Book has spent the past two weeks preparing to the be the started and his comfort level is clearly evident. And rising. He has the offense under his control and his command of the offense is impressive for someone who has only made three career starts. With more starts and more experience, Book will only get better.
This is a major test for Book given the hostile environment, but it doesn’t seem as though that will phase him. Will we get another 4 TD, 0 INT game this week? That might be a lot to ask, but Book does not worry me at all this week.
The Running Game
Notre Dame will be without Jafar Armstrong again this weekend, Tony Jones Jr is banged up with an ankle injury, and the Irish are missing their best offensive lineman. I still think they will be able to run the ball this weekend because of last week’s return of Dexter Williams. Williams was electric last weekend and his athleticism and speed can make up a bit for what the Irish lose with Bars out.
Jones Jr is a go this weekend according to Kelly but I really question what he will be able to do on a hobbled ankle. Jones Jr game is all about his vision and power and I wonder how effective he will be if he can’t fully trust his ankle to cut and run through people.
Dexter Williams is healthy though and he should have another big weekend for the Irish. He had 160 yards last weekend on 21 carries and he even left a little meat on the bone on a few runs – understandable given it was first game of the year. Expect a big game from him again this weekend.
The Notre Dame pass rush
The Irish pass rush doesn’t worry me either. Notre Dame has harassed opposing quarterbacks the past two weeks and currently has the highest rated pass rush in the entire country according to Pro Football Focus. Jerry Tillery played like a man possessed last weekend with 4 sacks to give him 7 on the season. Khalid Kareem didn’t get the gaudy stats but he was in the background generating pressure all night as well.
Notre Dame will need to generate pressure again this week to get Virginia Tech uncomfortable early. The Hokies will try to get Notre Dame in jump ball situations this weekend just like Stanford tried last weekend. KJ Costello rarely had any time to throw in the 2nd half last week though so Stanford was unable to do much of anything after halftime.
Players to Watch this Week
- Trevor Ruhalnd – Obvious with him filling in for Bars. If he holds his own, Notre Dame will score a lot of points.
- Tommy Kraemer – With Bars out, Notre Dame needs Kraemer to step up. He was hobbled a bit at times this year and ineffective at other times. Notre Dame needs him to step up and power the Irish inside running game.
- Cole Kmet – He came back from injury last week and made one big catch but was relatively quiet. That will change in the near future possibly as early as tomorrow.
- Daelin Hayes – He’s got 10 QB hurries and 0 sacks this year. That will change at some point as well. Hopefully it’s this weekend.
- Julian Okwara – He’s got a sack this season, but also has 16 QB hurries. Okwara is right in the thick of the action each week for Notre Dame even if he doesn’t show up on stat sheet.
- Miles Boykin – Virginia Tech had trouble with Old Dominion’s tall receivers. With Boykin coming off a career day, look for him to be involved early and often.
- Julian Love – He will be tested with some more jump situations this weekend. Outside of the one TD that was almost unstoppable, Love was great last weekend.
How Did I Do Last Weekend?
Not too bad, I had Notre Dame winning and covering the spread by predicting a 7 point Irish win. I didn’t see a 21 point beating coming, but I don’t think anyone in the world did. Another full disclosure: when I sat down to write last week’s prediction I thought I would pick Stanford at the end. By the time I wrote it, I had myself convinced Notre Dame would win.
If this game were in Notre Dame, I would be predicting a 10+ point Notre Dame win very confidently. It’s not, however, and as such it’s much tougher to predict. There’s a lot working against Notre Dame this weekend with the hostile environment, the key loss of Bars, and coming off an emotionally and physically draining game against Stanford. Again, level playing field with all things being equal, Notre Dame wins this game easily.
In my pre-season prediction post I had Virginia Tech winning this because of the whole body blow theory. Then Tech lost to Old Dominion, its starting quarterback, and its best pass rusher. On top of that, Notre Dame didn’t just beat Stanford, they beat them down.
Add it all up, and I think we will have a close, hard fought Notre Dame victory tomorrow where the Irish add a late score to put it away.
Notre Dame 31, Virginia Tech 21