Nov. 16, 2016
Maybe it’s the momentum generated from a 38-point win.
Maybe it’s the thought that Notre Dame proved last weekend that when the offense, defense and special teams all do their things effectively, the Irish can be quite productive.
Offered Irish coach Brian Kelly: “We played that game differently than any other game we played all year. We played with an edge we hadn't played with all year. And if we continue to play with that kind of edge we can be a really good team.”
Maybe it’s the notion that it will be emotional in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, even if there are fewer than the usual number of seniors exhausting their eligibility. That list includes only captains James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell along with scholarship players Josh Anderson, Scott Daly, Mark Harrell, Jarron Jones, Cole Luke and Avery Sebastian.
Maybe it’s the chance to end the home season on a high note by trying to defeat an opponent with as many victories on its line as any other team on the 2016 Irish slate (Stanford, Navy, Virginia Tech and USC all have won seven games so far).
Maybe it’s the idea that first-time visitors to Notre Dame Stadium like Virginia Tech don’t have a great track record.
Maybe there’s a suggestion that Irish players would like to demonstrate they are better than their record indicates.
Maybe all of that plays a role in Notre Dame’s 2016 home finale Saturday against the Hokies—now leaving North Carolina State and Virginia as the lone Atlantic Coast Conference programs never to have played in South Bend.
The game for the Hokies comes at something of a strange juncture. Virginia Tech had planned to nail down its ACC Coastal Division title last weekend in Blacksburg—only to have a Georgia Tech team that had been 2-4 in league play run for more than 300 yards and defeat the Hokies 30-20. That leaves a home date next weekend against Virginia (currently 2-8) as the final chance to earn the division crown and a slot in the ACC Championship game.
For Kelly, whose team appeared to right the ship last weekend—in great part in the confidence category—it’s simple:
“You want all of the things that you worked so hard on all year to come together in these last two games. I think that regardless of how we're perceived, I think the most important thing is to play the way we're capable of playing. That's what I'm looking at more than anything else.”
The Hokies pose a substantial threat—led by all-purpose quarterback Jerod Evans who ranks 13th nationally in pass efficiency (compared to DeShone Kizer’s rating of 23rd) and 18th in total offense at 313.3 yards per game (Kizer is at 291.0 for 24th).
Veteran Hokie defensive coordinator Bud Foster was extremely complimentary of Kizer and the Irish this week. “Just a big, dynamic guy that you see getting better and better every week that he plays,” he said about Kizer. “You’re talking about Five Star U, man. They’ve been in the top two or three recruiting classes for the last 50 years. Or at least for sure how long they’ve been rating recruiting classes. They’ve got those kind of guys. Our corners are going to have to play really, really well. They take a lot of deep shots. They run a lot of deep comebacks. They do a lot of double moves. We’re going to have to do a good job on the perimeter. We’re going to have to play extremely well.”
Virginia Tech is fifth in the nation in third-down defense, 13th in fewest first downs allowed on defense (160), 14th in fewest passing yards allowed (184.9 per game) 23rd in red-zone defense, 24th in scoring defense (21.2 points per game) 12th in team passing efficiency defense, sixth in team tackles for loss (8.2 per game) and 15th in total defense (329.0 yards per game). The Hokies also rank fourth nationally with only four interceptions thrown all year (compared to 22 TD passes by Evans).
The two teams have three common opponents in 2016—with Notre Dame already having defeated Syracuse and Miami while losing to Duke, and Virginia Tech defeating Miami and Duke and falling to Syracuse.
Kelly says keys for his team will be “putting all these components together, learning how to win close games, not giving up the cheap plays that we've given up occasionally during the year to keep teams in games. And playing smart football. Getting off the field on third downs, staying on the field, red zone, those things. I'm looking for that. If we do that, I think people can make their own opinions about what kind of team we have.”
The Hokies (7-3) ranked as high as 14th (last week) in the College Football Playoff rankings but dropped out completely after their loss to Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, 2016 Irish opponents USC (13th) and Stanford (24th) remain in this week’s CFP poll (both with 7-3 records).
Evans suggests his team must forget about the Notre Dame tradition and concentrate on the game at hand: “I respect the heck out of their tradition, don’t get me wrong. But I could care less about the tradition. We’re here to play a game. We’re here to play football. And the tradition doesn’t go on the field. Tradition won’t win the game. I’m not going to be worried about tradition when I’m throwing a football pass. I’m going there for business.”
Meanwhile, Kizer thinks he and his teammates have come out on the other side of their earlier struggles by scoring points on 14 of their last 17 drives dating back to the final two possessions versus Miami:
“You don't respect and appreciate the ups when you don't go through the downs, and I think that this season has really proved to me that in order to achieve greatness, you have to see what it's like to be on the other side of it.
“Last year I was thrown into a fire and came out pretty successful. And that was my whole career up until that point--me being a top athlete in a leading position and being successful. And this year has been the first year where I didn't have the start I really wanted to have, and I really had to experience what it was like to be a losing quarterback.
“And with that I think I've learned quite a bit in the sense that in order to maintain the elite stature and maintain success, you have to be able to feel what it's like to be on the other side of it so you can appreciate what goes into being successful.”
Leave it to captain Mike McGlinchey to put the first 10 games of the season into perspective:
“You don't grow unless you're uncomfortable, and this team has certainly had its uncomfortable and challenging moments this season. It's been fun to see the way guys react and the way the coaching staff and the team as a whole react to it. And it's been a unique season in the fact that, yeah, we've had some struggles. Obviously our record doesn't show what we wanted it to show at the beginning of the year.
“But there are a lot of small victories that we've taken away this year with the attitude, the leadership and things that we know we need to do better and improve on. We've done that so far this year, and we're excited for the next two weeks--and whatever happens after that, so be it. You definitely need to have some adversity in your life to be able to get better.”
Here are introductions and presentations set for the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium:
--The national colors will be presented before the game by the tri-campus student government leaders--Emma McCarthy and Mary Joy Dingler from Saint Mary's, George Sutherland and Marco Medina from Holy Cross, and Becca Blais from Notre Dame. Corey Robinson, the Notre Dame student body president, is unable to attend because he is interviewing as a finalist this weekend for a Rhodes Scholarship.
--Notre Dame senior player introductions (28 players) will occur prior to the teams taking the field just before kickoff. Expect the introductions to begin with 13:00 on the clock—with NBC Sports planning to show the final few player introductions live during its pregame segment.
--The Presidential Team Irish Award goes to the Staff Advisory Council (SAC).
--Senior student managers, student trainers, student video staff, student nutrition staff, senior Irish ambassadors and senior cheerleaders will be introduced during timeouts.
--Former Mutual Radio radio play-by-play veteran Tony Roberts will be recognized at the end of the first period. Roberts handled calls of Irish football games from 1980 through 2006. He will be inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame Thursday night in Chicago.
--The Notre Dame faculty recognition goes to Pat Murphy, Professor of Marketing, Mendoza College of Business; C. R. Smith co-director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been part of the Notre Dame athletics communication team since 1978.