Notebook: Revived physicality helps Notre Dame defense stymie Virginia Tech ground game
SOUTH BEND — Three season-ending injuries hardened Notre Dame defensive back Shaun Crawford to withstand future obstacles.
A dislocated elbow suffered in the Sept. 28 Virginia game hardly deterred the senior. Missing just two games paled in comparison to Crawford tearing the ACL in his knee twice and tearing his left Achilles tendon.
As Crawford’s role returned to normal, No. 16 Notre Dame (6-2) also reclaimed its identity on defense in a 21-20 win over Virginia Tech (5-3) on Saturday. The Irish victory in Notre Dame Stadium required the Irish to control the run game and limit big plays.
The win also called for Crawford to rotate at safety, something he hadn’t done much of all season. A different position, a minor injury — neither challenge compared to what he’s endured.
“It wasn’t that bad,” said Crawford of his elbow injury. “I just knew that there was going to be some pain. There was going to be some time that I had to get through. But once I did, I was just ready to go.
“I didn’t think it was anything big. We got the news. We got the timetable. It was just time to go to work.”
The Irish held more scrimmage settings in practice between their starting offense and defense than usual this week. Crawford’s toughness and energy also helped bring back the physicality Notre Dame lacked in last week’s loss at Michigan. He played sparingly in the 45-14 defeat.
Six of Virginia Tech’s first seven possessions resulted in three-and-outs. Notre Dame outgained its opposition 243-85 in yards through the first half, allowing just five first downs during that span. The Irish defense forced two field goals in the second half, paving the way for an 18-play, 87-yard game-winning drive capped by a seven-yard touchdown from quarterback Ian Book with 29 seconds left.
“Our defense did a great job today,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “I think (defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) and the staff had a great plan.”
That game plan involved the Irish featuring five defensive linemen on the field at times and loading the box with extra defensive players for run support. Notre Dame dared dual-threat quarterback Quincy Patterson Jr. to throw, yet he did not complete a pass until his seventh attempt.
Patterson finished 9-of-28 passing for 139 yards with a touchdown and an interception to Irish safety Kyle Hamilton on the final play of the game. Patterson added 19 rushes for 77 yards, but the Hokies totaled just 101 rushing yards on 36 attempts.
“The D-line definitely knew that we had to keep the quarterback contained just like the Virginia quarterback (Bryce Perkins). He was a runner,” Irish defensive end Julian Okwara said. “Having that in the back of your mind the whole game, he can take over the game with his feet.
“Just staying in our rush lanes, collapse the pocket, just keep him in one area.”
Michigan recorded five runs of at least 20 yards against Notre Dame. A total of 26 of Virginia Tech’s 36 rushes amassed four yards or fewer. The Irish refused to allow their opponent to beat them that way again, yielding only one such gain to the Hokies.
The Hokies entered the matchup 24-6 under head coach Justin Fuente when rushing for more than 150 yards.
“They were definitely not going to let us run the ball,” Fuente said. “They were stacked in there. I’m a little disappointed, I’m going to have to look at it, that we didn’t make more plays in the passing game. We didn’t really create a lot of separation out there, either.”
On an island
Notre Dame cornerback Donte Vaughn ended any redshirt possibilities by playing in his fifth game of the season.
Vaughn and fellow corner Troy Pride Jr. were tasked with man-to-man coverage on the outside for most of the game. Damon Hazelton bested Pride in one instance, hauling in a back-shoulder throw for an eight-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He registered five receptions for 63 yards.
"It was a good matchup. When you go out there and play corner, it’s the second hardest position in football," said Pride, who added that quarterback is the hardest. "You’re going to face some good talent, You’re going to face some good receivers.
"It’s about knowing your scheme, knowing what you have to do, knowing your role, playing technique, playing through the ball and doing your job. I tried to do my job the best I could today.”
The Hokies attempted a healthy amount of deep passes but connected on only two throws beyond 12 yards. Hazelton caught a 28-yarder and receiver Tré Turner grabbed a tough 50-yard jump ball.
“They gave up some plays, but they were on an island all day,” Kelly said. “Pride and Vaughn, look, they battled, they hung in there and at the end of the day, they did what we asked them to do in this game plan and they held up for us.”
Without freshman punter Jay Bramblett’s save of a hold, place-kicker Jonathan Doerer likely would have missed his extra point that gave Notre Dame a 21-20 advantage.
Bramblett fielded a low snap that thudded on the ground and repositioned the football in time for Doerer to drill the kick.
“Yeah, it was a low snap,” Kelly said. “At that point you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re just moving on to the next play. But Jay did a great job getting the ball down for Jon, and Jon connected on it.”
• Quarterback Ian Book, right tackle Robert Hainsey and wide receiver Chris Finke represented Notre Dame for the coin toss.
• Notre Dame’s 91 offensive plays against Virginia Tech are the most in the Brian Kelly Era that ended in regulation. The Irish logged 104 snaps in their 29-26 triple overtime win over Pittsburgh in 2012.
• Jafar Armstrong’s fumble — which resulted in a 98-yard scoop and score for Virginia Tech — ended a streak of 1,273 carries without a lost fumble by Notre Dame running backs. The last came against Boston College on Nov. 21, 2015.
• The Irish have won 16 consecutive home games, which is their third-longest streak in school history.