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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech, rebounding from a year of dismal defense

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Notre Dame’s ACC scheduling has a degree of inconsistency to it. Fitting in five games against 14 opponents in six-year cycles does not exactly make for comprehensible math. Thus, the Irish face Virginia Tech in back-to-back seasons between last year and this November, but then will not see the Hokies again until 2027.

For now, Virginia Tech will be somewhat familiar. By then, there will be no overlap, possibly even including each head coach. (Brian Kelly would be entering his 18th season leading the Irish; consider that unlikely.)

2018 REVIEW
Without checking the exact birth dates of the entire roster, it is still pretty easy to figure no Hokie on last year’s team was born yet when Virginia Tech last suffered a losing season. Going 6-7 was the first such disappointment since 1992.

The Hokies still held onto two streaks, though, struggling to preserve each.

The more impressive and longer, the nation’s longest bowl streak, was in peril when Virginia Tech fell to 4-6 with only one set game left on the schedule. Hurricane concerns had canceled an earlier game, seemingly shortening the Hokies schedule. Virginia Tech had stumbled to that record by losing 49-35 at Old Dominion — yes, Old Dominion — and 45-23 to Notre Dame. After rebounding from the latter defeat with a win at North Carolina, the Hokies then stumbled through four straight losses before hosting Virginia.

The Cavaliers had not beaten their in-state rivals in 14 years. Two late fumbles pushed that run to 15 years, more a result of Virginia’s mistakes than Tech’s perseverance. That win also got the Hokies within one win of a bowl game. A hastily-arranged game against Marshall provided that chance, and the bowl streak subsequently reached 26 years.

ON THAT BOWL STREAK
Organizing a game to continue such a trivial piece of bragging rights is forgivable when it is precipitated by a hurricane canceling a game against Eastern Carolina. That does not mean all of Virginia Tech’s roster was on board with the decision.

It was clearly a lost season, one done in before it began when an already-young defense lost three starters before the year commenced. The veterans were (for some, still are) playing for a coach who did not recruit them, at the end of Justin Fuente’s third year of taking over for the legendary Frank Beamer. Reaching a bowl game would mean weeks of December practices, a shortened Christmas break with family, more early wake-up calls.

Not everybody was on board with those possibilities. Per a Sports Illustrated article from last week, that group of veterans did not keep its thoughts to itself.

I really hope we lose.

“The comments came from the mouths of a small group of players no longer on the team, guys who meant to cripple their own squad just hours before the regular-season finale.”

Instead, the Hokies beat Marshall 41-20, then lost to Cincinnati, 35-31, in the Military Bowl.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH LOST
Some of those upperclassmen transferred; others will remain lost in the cloud of current players not naming names. To assume any name who transferred was among them would be a rush to judgment. Graduate transfer receiver Eric Kumah, for example, has publicly pushed back against that narrative. The Hokies’ No. 2 receiver last year with 42 catches for 559 yards and seven scores, Kumah briefly considered transferring to Notre Dame before opting for Old Dominion.

Kumah was only one of a handful of offensive skill position players to depart. Receiver Sean Savoy (18 catches for 188 yards and two scores) also transferred, and leading rusher Steven Peoples (786 yards and six touchdowns) ran out of eligibility. Quarterback Josh Jackson transferred, as well, but that was as much an example of passers moving on when they get dropped in the depth chart as it was anything else.

Defensively, Virginia Tech lost only one name of note, defensive tackle Ricky Walker (49 tackles with 10.5 for loss, including two sacks).

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH GAINED
Not named above were three starting offensive linemen. To be blunt, the Hokies line was not good enough to warrant mentioning each departure. Adding Coastal Carolina transfer center Brock Hoffman could help change that, though his appeal for immediate eligibility remains in NCAA limbo.

Virginia Tech sought out two junior college defensive tackles to shore up its frontline interior, Da’Shawn Crawford and Jaden Cunningham, as well as a junior college defensive end Amare Barno.

The Hokies reeled in the No. 25 recruiting class, per rivals.com, highlighted by two 4-star offensive linemen and 4-star running back Keshawn King, who may end up the starter at some point this season.

Justin Fuente, center, enters his fourth season as Virginia Tech’s head coach facing a tipping point of sorts, either return to the winning ways of his first two seasons or prepare for speculation about his job stauts. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Fuente got off to a strong start in Blacksburg, winning the Coastal division with a 10-4 record in his debut season. Attrition and whatever else may have been at hand dropped his progress to 9-4 and then last year’s 6-7.

The question facing Fuente is, was last season an anomaly or a reality? If the latter, his tenure at Virginia Tech will not be long. If the former, proving it this season will be of utmost import.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Even without Kumah and Savoy, the Hokies have proven receiver talent with both junior Damon Hazelton (51 catches for 802 yards and eight touchdowns) and sophomore Tre Turner (26 catches for 535 yards and four scores) returning. The latter, in particular, broke out in November last year.

The duo will once again be chasing passes from fifth-year quarterback, and former Kansas transfer, Ryan Willis (pictured at top). He finished with a 58.5 percent completion rate and 24 touchdowns against nine interceptions in 10 games last season after taking over for an injured Jackson. As often as not, Willis risked disaster for the reward of a great play, but having now spent a full offseason in this system, it is expected he will be more comfortable with conservative plays when appropriate.

Two sophomores are projected as starters at each tackle position, but again, their inexperience is not inherently a step backward compared to what was there last year. The Hokies averaged only 174 rushing yards per game and gave up 28 sacks, rarely putting a defensive line on its heels.

Hokies linebacker Dax Hollifield wasted no time making an impact as a freshman, starting six games and making eight tackles for loss, including two sacks. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Virginia Tech’s offense may have staggered its way to 29.8 points per game, but that would have been enough if the defense had not collapsed. In 2017, the Hokies gave up 14.8 points per game. The year before, 22.8. Jumping to 31.0 was wholly unexpected from a Bud Foster defense.

The 210.3 rushing yards allowed per game was an equally significant step up from 2017’s mark of 119.5, the former being the worst since Foster took over as Virginia Tech defensive coordinator in 1995.

Other Foster-era lows? 24 sacks. 7 interceptions.

Yet, last year’s miseries are not distinct indicators of coming trouble. Foster returns 10 defensive starters, the perk of relying on so many freshmen and sophomores before they were ready. The stars of the bunch, sophomore linebacker Dax Hollifield and junior linebacker Rayshard Ashby, combined for 167 tackles with 17.5 for loss. 

Foster has announced his retirement after this season, and if his final defense is to return to his typical form, it will be led by Hollifield and Ashby.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Virginia Tech is both buoyed and weighted by its division. The ACC’s Coastal (otherwise known as the division without Clemson) is filled with okay-to-pretty-good teams, but with no stellar contender. Thus, the Hokies have a pile of winnable games, even if they are not all that good. That does not even mention the two FCS opponents on the schedule — Furman and Rhode Island, the latter an odd effect of 2018’s hurricane. Oh, and Virginia Tech hosts Old Dominion in an unusual chance at revenge.

So if those three games represent wins, and Tech’s six inter-divisional games are a mixture of possible-to-probable wins (Miami and Virginia being the toughest), then the Hokies could be well on their way to reaching their season win total over/under of 8.

That metric becomes even easier to reach with intra-divisional games against Boston College and Wake Forest, rather than Clemson and Syracuse. Win one of those and go 4-2 within the division and not only could Virginia Tech reach that arbitrary number, but it could be in the conversation for an ACC title game appearance.

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