There was a time when Notre Dame’s secondary was vulnerable to the big play.
Fans may recall, despite their best efforts to wipe the month of September from their collective memory, that the Irish defense surrendered eight passing plays of at least 30 yards in its first four games, three of which were losses.
Then, Brian Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and replaced him with Greg Hudson.
And poof, everything changed.
The following week, in a 50-33 road victory over Syracuse, which ranks 12th nationally in passing yards per game, Notre Dame allowed two more passing plays of 30 yards or more.
In the five games since, there have been zero.
And yes, there are reasons for the sudden defensive surge beyond a swift, drastic improvement. For one thing, Notre Dame’s last two opponents — Army and Navy — run the triple option and have yet to fully embrace the forward pass. The torrential effects of Hurricane Matthew, too, effectively neutered NC State’s passing attack in a 10-3 anomaly on Oct. 8.
But Kelly has also emphasized that a shift in defensive coordinator has simultaneously yielded a shift in defensive approach, with the Irish scheming to take fewer defensive chances and keep the football in front of them.
That’s something Virginia Tech is plenty familiar with.
“People are trying to keep the ball in front of them a little bit more than they were,” said first-year Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, who takes his team to South Bend to meet the Irish on Saturday. “I don’t remember exactly the order of the games, but we hit a span where people were playing us pretty tight, and we had a couple weeks where we had some big plays.
“It seems to me that people are trying to keep the ball in front of them a little more and force us to execute on a consistent basis.”
That defensive approach has taken its toll, as Virginia Tech — which averages 33.4 points per game this season — has averaged just 22 points in its last two games, the most recent being a surprising 30-20 home loss to Georgia Tech last weekend.
In its first eight games of the season, Virginia Tech (7-3) registered 19 offensive plays from scrimmage of at least 30 yards.
In the last two games, there have been zero.
“As the season went on, we knew that teams would try to not let us take the roof off of the defense and things like that,” said junior wide receiver Isaiah Ford, who passed Jarrett Boykin to become the program’s all-time leader in receptions in last week’s loss to Georgia Tech.
“We’re just going to have to get more plays with yards after the catch. That starts in my room with me, Cam (Phillips), C.J. (Carroll) and Bucky (Hodges). We have to accept that challenge and try to make more plays when we get the ball in our hands.”
The Hokie playmakers are certainly capable. A 6-foot-3, 238-pound junior quarterback, Jerod Evans ranks 13th nationally in passing efficiency, 10 spots ahead of Notre Dame junior DeShone Kizer. He has thrown for 2,519 yards and 22 touchdowns with just four interceptions, while also leading the team with 608 rushing yards and six scores in his first season after transferring to Virginia Tech from Trinity Valley Community College.
The 6-2, 195-pound Ford leads the Hokies with 58 catches, 795 yards and seven touchdowns. Massive 6-7, 245-pound tight end Bucky Hodges (514 receiving yards, five touchdowns) is an undeniable red zone threat.
Virginia Tech has the pieces. But can it make explosive plays?
“We just all have to look ourselves in the mirror and see what we have to do better, and do that,” said Virginia Tech senior running back Sam Rogers. “We need to take a self-check and realize what we have to do moving forward.
“We’ll do better. I’m really confident in that.”