VT Preview

Virginia Tech: Irish Prepping For Chaos

There’s quarterback Ryan Willis, who was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Week at the quarterback spot for his play against Duke last Saturday in his first start for Virginia Tech.

There’s rover-back Reggie Floyd, the ACC Player of the Week at defensive back after his eight tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one interception and one pass breakup Saturday versus the Blue Devils.

There’s wide receiver Damon Hazelton who has produced back-to-back 100-yard receiving efforts.

There’s senior running back Steven People who has run for five touchdowns over the last three games combined, as the Hokies have averaged 234.7 yards on the ground in that span.

There’s the stingy Virginia Tech offense that leads the country this week in fewest turnovers (five teams have two so far in 2018).

There’s the Hokie rush defense, ranked fourth nationally this week while allowing 84 yards per game.

There’s the specter of former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, who will be recognized with a bronze sculpture this weekend in honor of his College Football Hall of Fame induction. He coached the Hokies for 29 seasons through 2015.

There’s that continued emphasis on “BeamerBall” that has accounted for 149 non-offensive touchdowns and 144 blocked kicks by the Hokies since Beamer’s first season at Virginia Tech in 1987.

There’s more than enough to keep Irish head coach Brian Kelly and his staff occupied this week.

And then there’s Lane Stadium where the Hokies are 11-2 under third-year head coach Justin Fuente—only once allowing more than 150 ground yards to an opponent.

And there’s “Enter Sandman,” the Metallica song that has become the unofficial anthem of Lane Stadium.

Certainly the Notre Dame narrative this week has focused almost as much on the expected atmosphere at the home of the Hokies as on Fuente’s team itself.

“Everybody knows about ‘Enter Sandman,'” says Kelly. “It’s been a ritual there since 2000 — they really get that place rocking.

“Our job is to handle the environment and go in and play really good football. If we do that and handle the environment, handle ourselves and our preparation, we’ll be in pretty good shape.

“If we can’t handle the environment, if we can’t prepare the right way this week because we’re distracted because everybody’s telling us how great we are, then we’ll be in big trouble.”

The Irish routinely pump loud music and crowd noise into their practices to anticipate rowdy road scenes — and that’s happening this week as well.

“We have a big screen here,” says Kelly. “There’s plenty of video to show what that environment’s like. So our guys are well-accustomed to what it looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like.

“They know there will be a lot of orange. The decibels will be loud. They’ll be reminded of it during the week. So they’ll be much more accustomed to the situation.”

Kelly was asked Tuesday about any comparisons between this week’s challenge and last November’s trip to Miami.

“I think I was public in saying that I don’t think I even handled (the 2017 Miami game) the right way, giving them enough information about the situation,” he says. “I can’t be caught off guard — and maybe I was the one that was caught off guard because I didn’t prepare them the right way.

“We won’t be caught off guard going into Lane Stadium.”

Kelly delivered an alert that Irish practices this week will be hard to miss:

“It will be as loud as allowable. On campus we have some restrictions, but you’ll definitely know that there’s a practice going on. There’s no doubt.”

Following impressive four-quarter performances the last two weeks against Wake Forest and Stanford, Kelly wants to see that momentum continue.

“Our players were certainly prepared and confident and they displayed that against Stanford,” he says. “I think what we were looking for was a consistency in their performance. We think we’ve got that.

“Now we’ve got to be able to do that on the road against a quality opponent and in an incredible atmosphere at Lane Stadium. That’s something we knew we were going to face.”

More than anything, Kelly is excited about how his team has come together over the last few weeks — offense, defense and special teams.

“I think the word that I would probably use is that it’s all beginning to complement each other,” he says.  “The offense is complementing the defense. The defense is complementing the offense. And certainly the special teams are part of that.

“And that certainly wasn’t the case early in the year. So when each unit is complementing each other very well, you’re playing usually very good football.”

As much as Notre Dame’s three-touchdown win over the seventh-ranked team in the country earned headlines last weekend, so, too, did Virginia Tech’s road win against a Duke team that had not previously lost in 2018.

Says Kelly, “For them to bounce back after what I’m sure was considered a disappointing loss from their perspective (a 49-35 defeat at Old Dominion), to go on the road and play as well as they did tells you a little bit about their coaches.

“Defensively they got that unit to play at such a high level after giving up more points than they normally do (against Old Dominion), to come back and shut down a really good Duke offense.

“When you play Tech, everybody wants to look toward their defense and rightly so. But I think Virginia Tech has really shown under Coach Fuente the ability to score points and they’re doing that again this year.

“Offensively, they’ve had an injury at the quarterback position — but you wouldn’t know it. Willis has come in and done a really, really good job. And he’s a big athletic kid who has got escapability and real arm talent. And that’s complemented by having a host of really good wide receivers.

“Willis is not rattled by the moment out there. So when you lose your starter, you wonder what you have. And they’re very fortunate to have Ryan go in there and play at a high level.

“(Defensive coordinator Bud) Foster can do about everything from a defensive standpoint. If you watch their film this year, they’ve shown you everything, from double eagle, Bear defense to their structured invert defense, four down, to drop eight, to cover-zero pressure.

“So you have to really prepare for a lot. And there’s a lot of moving parts to their defense.

“One of the best parts is Ricky Walker, their defensive tackle — extremely disruptive and a really good football player. (Houshun) Gaines on the outside leads the team in sacks — he’s an athletic player.

“And they run to the football. They’re athletic and they play really hard.

“On special teams, they still have that ‘BeamerBall’ mentality. They get after kicks. They’re aggressive in special teams.

“But our team has shown an ability to prepare the right way, a maturity to stay away from the distractions. We’ve been preparing for this kind of environment for quite some time. So I’m confident we’ll be able to handle the moment when it comes.”

With two 2018 starts at quarterback now sitting on Ian Book’s resume, Kelly likes what the junior has brought to the Irish table.

“I like that he wins,” says Kelly. “He has certainly created a confidence level amongst the entire unit. And — that builds a confidence level with your offensive line that they know that even if they maybe don’t sustain a block, that they’re going to be okay.

“Wide receivers know they’re going to get the football in a position where they can run after the catch. I could go on and on and on. But he’s won football games.

“What can he do better? I think every single day it’s continue to prepare for the next opponent because it’s always a clean slate. That preparation part for a quarterback is really big. And he hasn’t been at it very

“So it’s the ability to come in each week and really lock in on that next opponent and then take what he’s learned and bring that with him — that’s a work in progress. It’s making sure he stays on track to continue to grow each day.”

Fuente understands the challenge for his team.

“This will be the most complete and talented team that we’ve played to date. They have all things clicking in different areas of the game.

“The last two weeks they’ve been very explosive, Defensively, they’ve played really well the entire year with giving up less than 20 points a game.

“So, it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our team. I know we will have a great atmosphere, but we’ve got to do a great job of preparing this young squad heading into this ball game.

“The defensive line stands out — they’re a movement team and will play a little bit of man coverage in the back end and are pretty darn good at it. They’re good at flying to the football.

“They’re aggressive and good at making it hard for people to run the football. It all starts with that and finding a way to run the football and people haven’t had much success with that. Their opponents have fallen behind the chains and then they pin their ears back and get at the quarterback.”

Foster appreciates what Book has added to the Notre Dame attack.

“I’m really impressed by their football team, number one,” he says. “They’re big and physical up front and they have some dynamic skill kids and maybe the largest receivers we’ve seen. They’ve got some dynamic backs.

“But this guy, Book, to me, he just has that ‘it’ factor. He’s got a live arm and has a tremendous presence about himself. He also can escape the pocket.

“This guy can do it all, he can run and create things and doesn’t seem to panic when things aren’t there. And he makes good decisions.”

Foster doesn’t expect much change from the Notre Dame rushing attack, even after the injury loss of Irish guard and captain Alex Bars.

“When you think of Notre Dame, that’s about what you would think they all would look like up front,” he says. “They are all 6-5 or taller and around 315 pounds.

“They’re big and strong, making them one of the better offensive lines we’ll face, if not the best offensive line that we’ll face.

“They’re a 50-50 group as far as run-pass percentage, particularly on first and second down. They do a lot of one-on-one blocking up front and it’s an impressive group when it’s all said and done.”

Saturday night Notre Dame will play in Blacksburg for the first time.

That means there now are only 18 remaining Power Five locations at which the Irish have not played football — Louisville in the ACC, Maryland in the Big Ten, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State in the Pac-12, plus seven Southeastern Conference venues (at Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Mississippi State) and six more from the Big 12 (at Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU).

By midnight Saturday Hokie fans are hoping the legend of Lane Stadium will have added another notch to its belt.

“We’ve played some really good people on big stages and we’ll be ready for this one,” says Fuente.

Kelly can say the same.

The Irish will fly home early Sunday morning in hopes they can hear that “Enter Sandman” tune in their dreams with smiles on their faces.  

NBC Sports’ coverage of Saturday night’s top-10 clash between No. 7 Stanford and No. 8 Notre Dame delivered the matchup’s second most-watched game on NBC in 24 years, according to Fast National Data provided by The Nielsen Company and Adobe Analytics.

Notre Dame’s 38-17 win over Stanford produced a Total Audience Delivery of 3.479 million average viewers, up 21 percent versus the Notre Dame-Stanford game on NBC in 2016 (2.880 million) and up 16 percent versus last year’s Notre Dame-USC game on NBC (3.012 million). Saturday’s viewership on NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app was the second best for the matchup since 1994, only behind the Fighting Irish’s 20-13 overtime victory against the Cardinal in 2012 (5.124 million TAD).

Viewership of Saturday night’s game peaked in the 8:45-9 p.m. ET quarter hour with nearly four million viewers (3.931 million), and delivered an overall 2.12 household rating. Indianapolis (7.4) and San Francisco (4.7) led all local markets, followed by Buffalo (4.5), Ft. Myers-Naples (4.3) and Chicago (4.0).

Through four games, Notre Dame Football on NBC has produced a Total Audience Delivery of 3.841 million average viewers, up 33 percent versus the first four games of the 2017 season (2.879 million), marking the best viewership to this point on NBC since 2012 (4.477 million).
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.