Virginia Tech can relate to Notre Dame’s 45-14 loss at Michigan last week.
The Hokies (5-2) dropped their last two college football games after an off week, losing by a combined score of 94-38 to Georgia Tech (2018) and Duke (2019). They will look to reverse that trend when coming to No. 16 Notre Dame (5-2) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) after their second off week this season.
The last few games for the Hokies indicate an upward trajectory. Virginia Tech replaced quarterback Ryan Willis with Hendon Hooker after a 45-10 home loss to Duke. Virginia Tech has since defeated Miami (42-35), Rhode Island (34-17) and North Carolina (43-41 in six overtimes).
Hooker exited in the first half of the Oct. 19 game against North Carolina with a left leg injury but has been practicing this week. Has Hooker returned to full strength? Will the Hokies play inspired as double-digit underdogs coming off three consecutive wins?
We caught up with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for more insight on the Hokies.
• Virginia Tech has looked like a different team since the Duke fiasco. What have you learned over the past three games?
Barber: Honestly, I’ve learned nothing definitive. I think Tech has reaffirmed my belief that it’s a below-average football team that plays with above-average effort, which in the weak-as-ever Coastal (Division) is often enough to grind out victories. The offense certainly has looked better with Hooker in, but it’s not exactly a juggernaut. He gives the unit an added dimension with his running ability that produces three or four more plays per game. But for a team that’s had four games decided by a touchdown or less, a few plays here and there can make a big difference.
• How would you overall assess the job done by head coach Justin Fuente, who began his tenure at Virginia Tech 17-5 and is 13-12 since then?
Barber: Year three exposed some truly deep issues in the program. In many ways, the standard year one attrition most programs deal with after a coaching change hit Tech a few years later. I don’t think the verdict has come in yet on Fuente. It would be easy to bang on him and just note the declining win totals and recent recruiting struggles. And since he’s not particularly media friendly, I expect many writers will.
But if he keeps this team playing hard enough to extend the Hokies’ beloved bowl streak, then bounces back with a strong season next year, he’ll be on firm ground. Now, if this year’s team quits on him — unlikely from what I’ve seen — or next year is another subpar season — quite possible — then he’ll be on the hottest of hot seats.
• Do you expect Hooker to receive all the snaps on Saturday, and how do you think he’ll perform?
Barber: I’m expecting Hooker to be a full go Saturday against Notre Dame. He actually twisted his ankle a few plays before the slip that took him out of the game, but Fuente said Hooker could have returned in the second half. With a full off week to get healthy, Hooker should be fine.
Backup Quincy Patterson could get a few plays but, honestly, he doesn’t offer the same change of pace that Tech wanted with Hooker when Ryan Willis — a traditional pocket passer — was starting. Hooker has expanded what the offense can do thanks to his mobility, and he appears to be developing as a passer.
• Is bend-but-don’t-break the correct description for VT’s defense? How do they matchup against quarterback Ian Book and the Irish offense?
Barber: I tend to think of bend-but-don’t-break defenses as ones that give up yards between the 20s but tighten up in the red zone. I’m not sure that’s Tech. The Hokies have struggled all season long, and really for the past few years, giving up big plays. It has allowed 37 plays of 20 yards or more and 15 of 30 or longer. I’d describe the Tech defense as broken.
Notre Dame has struggled to run the ball, so that could be an area for some success for Tech. But I expect the mobility of Book and the athleticism of the Irish wide receivers and tight end to give the Hokies problems.
• If Virginia Tech pulls off the upset, why do you think that would be? If Virginia Tech doesn’t cover the spread, why do you think that would be?
Barber: The Hokies’ young offensive line will have had to grow up amazingly fast during the off week for the Hokies to keep this one close. If they can run the ball, both with Hooker and with traditional running plays, and the defense shows up the way it did in the first half against Miami, Tech has a shot. It’s far more likely that Notre Dame big-plays the Hokies to death in the second half.
• Score prediction: Notre Dame 48, Virginia Tech 24.
Barber: I think Tech will struggle to protect Hooker and run the ball against Notre Dame’s front, and I think Book will hit the Hokies for some big plays in the second half of this one.