And In That Corner … The Virginia Tech Hokies again hope to send a Notre Dame season spiraling

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Richmond at Virginia Tech
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For the third time in just four years and the fourth time in seven years, No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) meets Virginia Tech (3-1). ACC opponents were originally expected to pop up on the schedule about once every three years, but the pandemic threw some of that planning out the window, and suddenly the Irish and the Hokies are becoming very familiar with each other.

To help understand this version of Virginia Tech, one that opened the year with a bang and has since slowly drifted from most national consciousness, let’s turn to Michael Barber of The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a regular contributor to this series at this point …

DF: Let’s abandon in-depth stats lampooning Virginia Tech’s passing game (190.8 yards per game) and even more so senior quarterback Braxton Burmeister (61.4 percent completion rate, 7.4 yards per attempt), and let’s skip doubting the Hokies running game that averages 3.6 yards per carry.

There is an unexpected and unique pattern with Virginia Tech when it comes to facing Notre Dame during this 2017-present resurgence. Somehow it seems whenever the Irish come to a proverbial fork in the road, it is against the Hokies. In 2018, Notre Dame had just beaten No. 7 Stanford, reaching 5-0. A road trip to Lane Stadium to face No. 24 Virginia Tech was the last great hurdle foreseen between the Irish and the Playoff. Dexter Williams silenced the crowd with his 97-yard touchdown run to spark a 45-23 win that wasn’t that close.

Then in 2019, fresh off getting walloped by Michigan, Notre Dame hosted the Hokies in the infamous Ian Book “shush” game, righting that season for the Irish.

Here we are again, Notre Dame pondering what direction its season will go. From the other sideline, do these tides resonate at all? Is there any sense of possibility in this chance to knock the Irish back when they are already teetering, either now or in 2019?

MB: I think the only part of those circumstances that mattered to Tech was — like last weekend’s loss to Cincinnati — they made Notre Dame appear more beatable. Whether it’s the history or the national ranking, there is something extra for teams playing the Irish. For younger teams, it can be intimidation, but even for more veteran clubs, there’s almost a distraction inherent in facing Notre Dame.

Tech’s recent “success” against Notre Dame probably resonates more — the 34-31 win in 2016, Justin Fuente’s first year with the Hokies, and the 21-20 near-miss in 2019 when Tech played with its backup quarterback.

The Hokies goal is to win the ACC Coastal. That is what, most likely, can save coach Justin Fuente’s job and make this season successful. To that end, Saturday’s game is virtually meaningless to Tech. But don’t tell that to the players, coaches or fans.

When it comes to Lane Stadium, does the fan base relish a chance to restore its noise after Williams so adamantly quieted it three years ago?

Since not being allowed in the building last year, Tech fans relish every chance to restore the feeling that Lane Stadium is a tough place to play. The atmosphere for the opener was down-right electric against North Carolina. I’d expect that same energy and volume, and maybe more, for Saturday night against Notre Dame. Night games at Lane Stadium are always special, but a big-name, ranked opponent ratchets that up a few notches.

The return of the “Enter Sandman” entrance (I still love it, too, even after all these years.) was the perfect start to a big win in the opener. There’s no denying, the Hokies feed off the crowd and that energy, so the Irish would be wise to strike early and take the crowd out of this one.

That place was rocking to start the season, and after 2020, it was a true joy to see. (We’ll also set aside my deep love for the “Enter Sandman” entrance.) That upset of then-No. 10 North Carolina changed some of the tunes around Virginia Tech, but there were two ways to view that 17-10 win: Sure, the Hokies shut down what has become an explosive offense, but they also could not score much against a poor defense. Despite facing FCS-level Richmond and the No. 109 defense in SP+ rankings in Middle Tennessee State, Virginia Tech is averaging just 23.5 points per game.

Where is the Hokies offense consistently falling short?

Certainly, there are issues all over for this offense. Fans have been calling for the scalp of offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen for the past 3-4 years now, but, to me, play-calling isn’t the biggest problem. The offensive line hasn’t been as good as Tech had hoped and the right tackle position has been problematic. Silas Dzansi has been injured, as has his backup, Parker Clements. Veteran Tyrell Smith looked overmatched playing that position.

The running game has yet to get in gear. Jalen Holston and Raheem Blackshear have both had good moments, but have not been consistently productive. No one anticipated either player putting up the gaudy numbers Khalil Herbert did a year ago, but the hope was a combination of backs could make up for that production. That hasn’t been the case. And, despite touting its young wide receivers all season, Tech basically has thrown the ball to three wideouts this season — Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and Kaleb Smith. The lack of depth at that position has hurt, as has the season-ending injury to star tight end James Mitchell.

Still, to me, the biggest problem for the offense has been that quarterback Braxton Burmeister hasn’t lived up to the expectations. He’s been good at times, really good in a few spots, but wildly inconsistent. Tech needs Burmeister to play a steady and strong game to get the offense out of its funk.

I suppose in some respect, this is a vintage Virginia Tech team. Little offense, all defense. The strongest part of that defense is against the pass, but it does give up more than four yards per rush. Since I am pretty sure the answer is still “No” to “Is this the defense that Notre Dame can run against?” I will skip to, how is the Hokies coaching staff approaching the uncertain Irish quarterback situation?

Justin Fuente was asked about this Monday. He said that the offense doesn’t seem to change much whether it’s Jack Coan or Drew Pyne in the game. He said that when Tyler Buchner is playing, that’s when the offense looks like a different animal. Notre Dame appears to utilize Buchner’s running ability and athleticism more.

Fuente said, at the end of the day, the Hokies need to prepare for what Notre Dame has done the most and the best, and not “chase ghosts” trying to prepare for all the nuanced variations of each possible quarterback. In effect, it sounds like Tech will prepare for all three possible QBs but not overly focusing on that position.

And speaking of the Virginia Tech coaches (and program-wide referendums), what is the current temperature of head coach Justin Fuente’s seat? It was scorching before the season, then cooled off with that upset of the Tar Heels, but losing at West Virginia is never a good look for a Hokies head coach, and this season is still very ambiguous for those in Blacksburg.

His athletic director had to hold a press conference after last season to announce he wasn’t firing Fuente, so there’s no denying this is a make-or-break year for Fuente. After winning 10 and 9 games his first two seasons in Blacksburg, winning a division title in Year 1, things have been trending in an ugly direction.

Tech is 22-19 since the start of the 2018 season, with two losing campaigns mixed in there.

Still, Fuente took a major step toward coming back in 2022 by beating North Carolina in the opener. He burned up a lot of that goodwill with lackluster showings against Middle Tennessee State and Richmond and the loss at West Virginia. A loss to Notre Dame, especially a lopsided one, will crank the heat up on Fuente in a major way from fans. But as far as the administration, I still believe that winning the Coastal Division at 9-3 or 8-4, as long as that includes a win over rival Virginia, will be enough to save Fuente.

He has a very strong recruiting class lined up for 2022 and he has improved his public persona some.

It’s that kind of tipping point again for Notre Dame, somehow always against Virginia Tech. These Hokies are not ranked like they were in 2018, but really, what is the practical difference between No. 24 in the polls and six deep into the “others receiving votes” category? This feels like more of a challenge, and the line agrees. The Irish were favored by six on the road in 2018 (and by 17 for that 21-20 win in 2019), whereas they are just 1-point favorites this week. What do you expect to see Saturday? Can the Hokies finally send Notre Dame down the other side of a make-or-break moment?

I’ve been wrestling with this pick. Both teams have offensive issues and I don’t think either will get that straightened out this week. Both teams have strong defenses that I think will rise to the occasion in this one. The Hokies get a slight edge being at home, where, as mentioned, I think the crowd will be a factor.

But at the end of the day, even with its quarterback issues, it feels like Notre Dame has more players capable of making a game-breaking play than Tech does. Virginia native Chris Tyree immediately comes to mind. I think this game will be close and competitive all the way through, but I’m expecting a big play on offense, a pick-six on defense or a kick return for a score to be the difference in an Irish win. I like Notre Dame 28-24 in this one.