How does No. 14 Notre Dame win at Virginia Tech? By following these four keys to the game.
Stifle the Hokies
The Notre Dame defense has to have a sour taste in its mouth. Despite a solid effort for most of the Cincinnati game, the Irish caved twice too many times, near the end of the second and fourth quarters, when the Irish offense wasn’t providing enough firepower. Saturday night in Blacksburg should be a prime opportunity for a bounce back.
The Hokies scored more than 21 points only once in their first four games. One of its two 21-point performances came against FCS Richmond, which has lost three straight games, and required a Virginia Tech punt return touchdown to aid the offense. The Hokies don’t have a particularly potent rushing or passing attack, so the Irish should be able to put the clamps on them.
Cherish the football
Virginia Tech’s best chance at putting Notre Dame to sleep involves forcing the Irish into multiple turnovers. That would allow the hostile crowd in Lane Stadium to last much longer than the “Enter the Sandman” entrance and give the Virginia Tech offense the extra possessions it needs to put the Hokies in front.
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The Irish have protected the football fairly well throughout the season, but three careless plays led to turnovers against Cincinnati. Notre Dame’s offense couldn’t overcome that turnover deficit last week and likely won’t be able to on the road either. The Irish need to know that a punt isn’t the worst-case scenario.
Special isn’t required
Notre Dame’s special teams units don’t need to be difference makers on Saturday night. But they have to make sure Virginia Tech’s special teams units don’t live up to their legacy. The Hokies look like a team still led by Frank Beamer on special teams sitting among the top 25 in kickoff returns (No. 3), punt returns (No. 17) and net punting (No. 22).
The Irish can’t afford the self-inflicted issues on special teams from a week ago: a fumbled kick return, a missed extra point and a pair of blocking penalties on punt returns. Competence will be required or the Hokies will make Notre Dame pay.
Don’t flinch at quarterback
Head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have to resist the urge for another mid-game quarterback switch. Stick with the decision and let that quarterback develop a rhythm with the offense.
Will there be hiccups? Of course. Especially if either Drew Pyne (more likely) or Tyler Buchner (less likely) are tapped to make their first career start. But the initial upside of using Buchner as a changeup quarterback has waned. And if the confidence in Jack Coan is lost, leave him on the sideline for the entirety. The offensive line needs as much stability behind it as possible while it struggles with its own cohesion.
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.