Another gritty second half lifts Notre Dame over Virginia Tech 45-23

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

BLACKSBURG, VA. — It had the early makings of a road defeat.

At least for a half.

No. 6 Notre Dame's slim 17-16 halftime lead didn't tell the story of all the pitfalls of the first two quarters — or what was about to come — a dominant finish in a 45-23 Irish victory over No. 24 Virginia Tech at raucous Lane Stadium.

It was only the second true road win against a ranked opponent in ND's last 11 tries, and there was enough unraveling in the first half at times to suggest the old trend might live on.

There was a lackluster second quarter from quarterback Ian Book. Irish defensive end Julian Okwara was ejected for targeting. That elevated unproven Jamir Jones to a major role, since junior Daelin Hayes had a shoulder injury and didn't make the trip.

And while Book’s deep ball was off, the Hokies isolated their best receivers on the Irish linebackers and took advantage.

And then the script flipped, or at least it looked a lot like the one the Irish (6-0) used to finish Stanford last Saturday.

“It was really much more of, it is going to take four quarters if you just hang in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Just doing what you are supposed to do, we are going to win the game."

Book began the night 8-of-8 for 114 yards. He finished the first half with a 7-of-15 stretch for 49 yards and an interception. The Hokies were without safety Divine Deablo, and cornerback Caleb Farley nursed an ankle injury. Book, however, failed to connect with his deep ball consistently and overthrew receivers.

“Against a team like Virginia Tech, it is tough throwing deep balls all the time because of how much pressure they bring,” said Miles Boykin, a senior receiver, who led ND with eight catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns. “So he was letting that ball go before we were really into our routes sometimes.”

Boykin fell victim to one of Book’s poor throws. The quarterback’s first interception of the season landed in the hands of safety Reggie Floyd, who undercut Boykin’s post route.

Virginia Tech's Reggie Floyd caught Ian Book's first INT of the season.

— Carter Karels (@CarterKarels) October 7, 2018

Two plays later, the Hokies (3-2) found themselves first-and-goal at the one-yard line. Two run stops and a third-down tackle for loss by the Irish turned what looked like a sure TD into a 22-yard Brian Johnson field goal.

The Irish defense held for a field goal after another gaffe handed the Hokies solid field position. A low snap resulted in punter Tyler Newsome being brought down at the Notre Dame 43. Khalid Kareem and Okwara then combined for a sack, leading to the second of three Virginia Tech field goals.

It was that kind of night.

“It is little things like that that make the difference in games,” cornerback Julian Love said. “We have this mentality of we are all together in this. It is not just special teams. It is not just offense. It is not just defense. We are all together. So we build off each other, and often times they bail us out. That is what great teams do.”

Sure, the Irish shot themselves in the foot. But each step back was followed by three steps forward. After the handful of Irish mistakes, for an example, a ND defensive touchdown increased its lead to 17-9.

Tech quarterback Ryan Willis evaded Kareem’s dive, but the junior defensive end managed to sprout back up and punch out the football. Love said he did not observe Kareem's strip, but he was in position for the 42-yard scoop and score.

“Really? I had no idea,” Love said. “That is (Khalid’s) play. It was just circumstantial that I got the ball.”

Huge scoop and score by Julian Love. When Notre Dame generates a turnover, there's a good chance he's involved.

— Carter Karels (@CarterKarels) October 7, 2018

The Hokies flashed their stout run defense — they entered Saturday tied for fourth nationally in that category — in the first half by holding the Irish to minus-three yards on 13 carries.

Tony Jones Jr. finished with the second-most carries among Notre Dame running backs with two. A depleted backfield expanded Dexter Williams’ role once again. His first eight carries went for just 17 yards.

Then, he was turned loose.

In the third quarter, the senior running back needed to create breathing room with his team backed up at its own 3-yard line. Williams instead registered the longest run in Lane Stadium’s history, dashing for a 97-yard touchdown.

Right guard Tommy Kraemer pulled to the left and kicked out a Virginia Tech linebacker, allowing Williams to cut back inside and have the second-longest run in Irish history.

“It was a great play by my offensive line,” Williams said. “Kraemer himself was just stepping up, being able to block and make that hole for me. It was a great feeling to just run through that hole and finish it for those boys.”

Williams' final nine carries went for 161 yards, with his two scores going for 97 and 31 yards to go along with his one-yard TD run on the game's opening drive. It opened up the passing game for Book, who finished 25-of-35 for 271 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

One of Book’s best plays came on Boykin's first of two touchdown receptions. With Boykin covered and Book leaving the pocket, the receiver released with only green grass ahead of him. Book then connected with him for a 40-yard score.

“I saw Ian break the pocket, so I just spun out and tried to get open for him,” Boykin said. “That is one thing Ian is great at, keeping his eyes downfield, scrambling and making plays.”

It was Boykin's third game with at least six receptions and 115 yards.

"If you look at some of the throws that he hit to extend drives, they were pretty good," Kelly said. "He was a little flat with throws, he missed some of the big ones down the field.

"When the ball comes out flat, level one not level two, he's a little excited and those throws he will hit. But he hit some of those big throws to keep the chains moving on third down."

The Irish defense yielded one second-half score in garbage time, but Love answered with an interception. Tech star receiver Damon Hazelton caught just three passes for 39 yards in a pass-heavy second half.

Last week, the Irish limited Stanford star J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to one reception for six yards in the second half.

“Our philosophy was that we were going to make them throw it,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “Throw the checkdowns, throw the hitches and make them drive down the field. We were not going to give up the fade balls.”

Left guard Trevor Ruhland, starting in place of injured grad senior Alex Bars, and Jamir Jones held their own in replacement duty.

A first half slump and a few fresh faces weren't deterring this Irish squad.

“The feeling was, ‘Dang, there goes one of our best, if not our best, pass rusher,’ ” said Tranquill of the Okwara ejection. “The guy has been getting pressure all year for us.

“But we have a next-man-in mentality, and we talked about it this week with Alex Bars going down and Trevor Ruhland stepping into his spot. The message was clear and obviously (Jones and Ruhland) stepped in, played well and got the job done.”

Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love registered a 42-yard scoop and score in a 45-23 victory over No. 24 Virginia Tech.