Players to watch: Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

A look at a few players to watch in Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) between No. 16 Notre Dame (5-2) and Virginia Tech (5-2).

QB IAN BOOK, Notre Dame

A bounce back game from Book is needed after the senior quarterback finished with 73 yards and a touchdown on 8-of-25 passing in last week’s 45-14 loss at Michigan. A banged up Tony Jones Jr. (ribs) and losing right guard Tommy Kraemer (MCL sprain) does not help Book’s cause. Virginia Tech’s defense has also wreaked havoc as of late, combining for 15 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss during its three-game winning streak. Book will need to remain poised in the pocket when under pressure and show better anticipation and decision-making with his reads.

LB ASMAR BILAL, Notre Dame

How Bilal plays may determine the effectiveness of Notre Dame’s run defense. The senior and Irish leader in tackles (44) struggles with being aggressive and gap sound at times. No member of the Irish front seven were either of those two last week against the Wolverines, who rushed for 303 yards and three touchdowns on 57 attempts. Holding Virginia Tech below half that mark may be a tall task for Bilal and Co. The Hokies have averaged 210 rushing yards and 40 points since dual-threat quarterback Hendon Hooker replaced Ryan Willis as the starter.

QB HENDON HOOKER, Virginia Tech

The status and usage of Hooker is worth monitoring. He exited in the first half of the Oct. 19 North Carolina game with a left leg injury but practiced this week. Backup Quincy Patterson Jr. impressed in Hooker’s absence, turning 21 carries into 122 yards and a touchdown. Hooker figures to see most of the action, but Patterson and even Willis could receive snaps. Virginia Tech could exploit Notre Dame’s poor run defense (No. 81 nationally) through its quarterbacks. They will need to protect the ball while doing so, though. The Hokies are No. 117 in turnover margin — as opposed to the seventh-ranked Irish.

LB RAYSHARD ASHBY, Virginia Tech

Though the Hokies are No. 65 and No. 86 in pass-efficiency defense and scoring defense, respectively, they have proven to be opportunistic. Heading into its bye last week, Virginia Tech ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s disruption rate metric (sacks, plus pass breakups, plus batted passes, divided by dropbacks). Ashby has played a major role in that aggression with his three sacks and team-leading 73 tackles. Look for the 5-foot-10, 237-pound junior and former high school teammate of Irish safety Jalen Elliott to be the key to slowing down Book and the Irish offense.

Linebacker Rayshard Ashby (23) leads Virginia Tech in tackles with 73 on the season.
Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) looks to pass during the Notre Dame-Michigan NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.