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And In That Corner … The Virginia Tech Hokies represent Notre Dame’s bounce-back chance

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If No. 16 Notre Dame wants to get back on its feet and restore some respectability to its season after last weekend’s letdown, that will start against an enigmatic Virginia Tech team. To get a better handle on the Hokies quanary, let’s check in with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for his third “And In That Corner …” in two seasons.

DF: I appreciate it, Mike. Long time, no talk. Oh, wait, that’s not the case. We did this just a month ago discussing Virginia. Just as Notre Dame is coming off a — what negative adjective should I use now? — rough loss at Michigan, Virginia Tech has actually found some momentum coming into this weekend. The Hokies rattled off three straight wins before reaching their off week. Is there any chance that idle time cost them some of that momentum?

MB: Yes, Virginia Tech is becoming quite proficient at pulling out close games and getting less-than-pretty wins, but I don’t know if they had any real momentum to speak of. This is a team that has to fight for every win, whether its conference games or non-conference supposed cupcakes like Rhode Island.

Honestly, with new starting sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker beat up, the time off was probably a good thing. With Hooker and the wide receiving corps getting healthy, the Hokies could have a more functional offense.

Those wins directly coincided with Virginia Tech switching quarterbacks. (Consciously chooses not to bring up the Irish quarterback situation.) Fifth-year Ryan Willis headed to the bench and sophomore Hendon Hooker took over. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly spent time Monday crediting Hooker’s dual-threat abilities. Is that the spur to the success or what else is there to what Hooker changes?

Hooker’s insertion into the lineup has definitely brought another dimension to Tech’s attack. He has the mobility to make plays with his legs and run away from pressure, important skills when playing behind the Hokies’ young and far-from-perfect offensive line. He needs to continue to develop as a passer but he’s made some big downfield throws in his starts so far.

Hokies sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker has started only three games, but Virginia Tech broke 30 points in each of those as he threw for seven touchdowns and rushed for one more. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

The last view of Hooker included a knee injury keeping him from finishing that epic six-overtime win against North Carolina. He’s healthy, correct? Will that dual-threat effect be limited?

Hooker could have come back into that game, in the second half, but Tech wanted to be safe, not sorry. With the time off, Hooker should be full speed for this game.

Let’s take a quick pause there. How was covering that six-overtime game? I watched it on a friend’s phone on the patio of a wedding reception.

Sadly (or not), I wasn’t at the 6OT slugfest. I covered Virginia’s win over Duke that day, then watched the end of the UNC-Tech game on a SID’s phone. It was widely agreed that none of us in the press corps remembered the rule change that says after four overtimes, it’s just two-point conversions. Wild stuff.

It is hard for me to get a handle on the Hokies defense. In Bud Foster’s final year, his unit gave up 35 points to Boston College and 45 to Duke in the first month of the season. What went wrong to start?

And what got fixed, if anything? It is not as if giving up 17 to Rhode Island and 31 (in regulation) to North Carolina are exactly strong showings.

Frustratingly for Tech fans, the year opened with the Hokies defense having the same issues it did a year ago. It gave up big plays and didn’t get great pressure on the quarterback. Since then, Virginia Tech has figured out how to rush the passer, and that’s been a big part of the win streak. Corners Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller are playing very well and Tech is forcing turnovers. But the unit is still giving up far too many big plays.

It is unfortunate to see Foster going out like this. Rather than try to diagnose what went wrong with his defense, let me go bigger than that — Should Justin Fuente worry? It is only his fourth year in Blacksburg, but the Hokies head coach has slipped from 10 wins to nine wins to six wins to what could be another six-win season. That is hardly an encouraging trend. Is the mood at Virginia Tech reflective of that?

Fuente is perfectly safe job-wise, in large part, yes, due to his $15 million buyout, but also because this athletic director hired him and believes in him. In the end, I think all the “Fire Fuente” talk will be much ado about nothing. Virginia Tech is going to have another sub-par year this season. Maybe they’ll extend the bowl streak, maybe not. Maybe they’ll extend the winning streak against rival Virginia, maybe not. Either way, Fuente will go into next year on the hot seat but with a veteran offensive and defensive line and a lot of returners. He’ll save his job next season, not this one.

Hokies junior receiver Damon Hazelton is averaging 23.7 yards per catch this season with five touchdowns, leading Virginia Tech in both respects. (Photo by Brian Bishop/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I have kept this brief. I suppose I could have spent some time praising receivers Damon Hazelton and Tré Turner, but since their success ties so closely to Hooker’s, I chose brevity. Is there anything glaring I have missed?

Don’t overlook how important it is that Tré Turner and Damon Hazelton are finally healthy. The offense might have looked different earlier this year if the Hokies had those two guys. In fact, Ryan Willis might still be the starting quarterback.

Oh, and the bookmakers project a blowout Saturday. What do you expect?

It looks like Virginia Tech is a 17.5-point underdog in this one. Honestly, respectfully, I think that’s generous. I think Notre Dame’s defensive line is going to give the Hokies fits and the Irish will hit a few big plays on offense. I’m expecting the home team to turn this into a blowout in the second half, similar to its win over Virginia. I’ve got Notre Dame 38, Virginia Tech 17.