Opponent outlook: Which Virginia Tech team will show up against Notre Dame?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Following a 49-35 loss to lowly Old Dominion, Virginia Tech’s football team looked like a completely different group at Duke last week.

Justin Fuente’s squad knocked off the then-No. 22 Blue Devils 31-14 under backup quarterback Ryan Willis. The No. 24 Hokies could be favored in every game after Notre Dame, but the Old Dominion fiasco created doubt.

Which Virginia Tech team will show up against Notre Dame? We caught up with Andy Bitter of the Athletic for a closer look at the Hokies.

What changed for Virginia Tech following the ODU game and what did you learn from its performance against Duke?

Bitter: “It reinforced to me that this is both a talented but young team that’s going to be prone to wild swings like that. Justin Fuente noted after the loss at ODU that the team didn’t prepare that well, saying that he liked their effort this summer back when nobody was giving them a chance to beat Florida State. Well, they did beat the Seminoles, and perhaps all the praise from that went to their heads a little bit. That’s something that young teams are prone to more than veteran ones. They don’t know to handle success.

“I think you saw that the Hokies aren’t necessarily dependent on one player to be successful. After ODU, they lost their starting quarterback to injury (Josh Jackson) and probably their second best defender to dismissal (Trevon Hill). Against Duke, they got excellent play out of backup quarterback Ryan Willis and one of their best showings by the defensive line all year. This is a team that wins or loses based on how the team plays, not just one guy.”

How would you describe Willis’ skill set and what is his ceiling?

Bitter: “Willis looked pretty comfortable stepping in for Jackson, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns and not putting the ball in danger at any point during the night, a big question for a guy who threw for 17 picks in a year and a half on a bad Kansas team. Jackson was a quality quarterback for the Hokies, but his success was never because he had some otherworldly talent like a Michael Vick or Tyrod Taylor and made plays because of that.

“He was at his best when he operated the offense as directed and didn’t try to do too much. From what I saw the other night, Willis is plenty capable of doing that. and he brings a little bit better arm and deep-ball capabilities than Jackson, which brings some of those receivers back into play a little bit more who can stretch a defense vertically.”

Bud Foster’s defense held Duke to 71 rushing yards and looked great on third down. In the week before, though, VT allowed 49 points and 632 total yards. Which defense should we expect on Saturday?

Bitter: “It’s hard to tell. Historically, you’d probably bet on the former. In 32 years at Virginia Tech and 24 years as the defensive coordinator, Foster’s been one of the best in the business. Given a full week to prepare for an offense, he usually cooks up something pretty good. and rarely, if ever, do you see a Hokies defense get repeatedly burned by the same thing week after week (except if it’s a running quarterback, which has been a problem for a while).”

It seemed like the Hokies created problems when dropping eight in coverage. The Irish offense has struggled against that look so far. Which players make that scheme effective and do you expect more of those looks going forward?

Bitter: “Yeah, that was a new wrinkle from Foster, and I’m not sure if it’s here to stay or if it was a one-time deal against a look Duke was giving. It worked surprisingly well. Duke couldn’t run the ball against a three-man front and it couldn’t protect very well, despite overwhelming numbers in the trenches. I’m not sure if Tech can pull that off against what’s been a pretty good Notre Dame offensive line, from what I’ve gathered.

“It’s much easier to pull off that three-man rush when one of the three is defensive tackle Ricky Walker, the undisputed leader of the defense. He commands plenty of double teams. Jarrod Hewitt, who plays beside him, has been pretty good stepping in for Vinny Mihota, who slid inside to tackle last offseason but is still working his way back after suffering a knee injury late last year.

“Houshun Gaines has been a real revelation at defensive end this year and is coming off a 2½-sack day against Duke, despite spending much of his night dropping into pass coverage almost like a linebacker. That look doesn’t work if the linebackers aren’t on their game, too. MIKE linebacker Rayshard Ashby had a career-high 15 tackles at Duke.”

With VT’s weak remaining schedule, could it still finish with 10-plus wins? Or are they susceptible to another ODU-type loss?

Bitter: “There’s no reason to think the Hokies can’t go on a run and still finish with 10 wins. Let’s put it this way: there’s not a team on the schedule they can’t beat the rest of the way. But, as the ODU result showed, there’s not a week that goes by that Tech couldn’t get tripped up, too. That’s been Fuente’s history here. He’s had some big wins, but also some head-scratching performances as a big favorite.

“I’ll probably stick to my preseason prediction and put them in the 8-4 range, which, minus the ECU game, would make them 7-4. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Hokies do better than that, and really, getting up in the 9- or 10-win range will be dependent on how they fare against the Irish this week.

“But as the ODU game showed, you just never know how a team with this many young players in major roles will perform from week to week. Heck, Tech could beat Notre Dame and then lose to what appears to be a not-so-great Georgia Tech in a couple weeks. That wouldn’t surprise me. It just feels like one of those years that’s hard to project.”

WHO: No. 6 Notre Dame (5-0) vs. No. 24 Virginia Tech (3-1),

WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 4½