SOUTH BEND – Today, Notre Dame can begin to put the loss to Michigan behind it. There has been far more talk this week about the loss to the Wolverines than there has been about the threat that Virginia Tech poses. That is to be expected, but the Irish are outwardly eager to move on and begin to change the narrative on their season. A 10-2 season wouldn't be ideal after coming into the year with national championship aspirations, but it would still be a passable outcome and today could be the first step toward getting there.
It won't be easy, however. Virginia Tech is a talented team and it presents many of the same challenges as the Wolverines, though on a lesser scale. The Hokies can rush the passer (12th in the country with 25 sacks), they can run the football (two running backs averaging at least 4.6 yards per carry) and they have a rapidly improving quarterback who can make plays with his legs when the play breaks down (redshirt freshman Hendon Hooker, who is 3-0 as a starter). VT is coming off a bye, but before that had won three games in a row, including a 43-41 thriller against North Carolina in six overtimes. After stumbling to a 2-2 start, this team is playing with a lot of confidence and the Irish won't be able to coast through this game.
The Irish have talked all week about the need to be more physical and that will start in the trenches. They gave up 303 rushing yards against Michigan and weren't good in that department against USC, either. Virginia Tech running backs Deshawn McClease and Keshawn King will test a Notre Dame defensive front that is trying to make a statement after getting pushed around by the Wolverines. Under an especially bright spotlight are defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Jayson Ademilola and Kurt Hinish, who have to do a better job of sealing the middle. We'll know early in the game whether the Irish have made the necessary adjustments.
Of course, Notre Dame's biggest question mark for most of the season has been at quarterback: which version of Ian Book will show up? Book has shown flashes of getting better in the pocket this season, but he regressed against the Wolverines, running out of clean pockets far too often and missing more than a few open receivers downfield. The Hokies will come after him off the edge and he will have to do a better job of stepping up against pressure. Linebacker Rayshard Ashby, who already has 10 tackles for loss this season, figures to try to make the quarterback's life miserable. Book can't convince any doubters with one good performance, but if he plays well today the calls for backup Phil Jurkovec to get some time under center will quiet for at least another week.
The Irish might be down one important playmaker today as Tony Jones Jr. is a game-time decision and his status remains uncertain. He suffered a rib injury against the Wolverines and finished that game with just eight carries for 14 yards. If he can't go, the Irish will need contributions from Jahmir Smith and Avery Davis, in addition to a big game from Jafar Armstrong, who has been quiet in his first two games back from his abdominal injury. Jones' injury comes at a difficult moment, after he'd ripped off three 100-yard performances in a row and seemed to have shored up his place as the No. 1 running back.
Ultimately, much of today's outcome will be determined by Notre Dame's preparation. Have the Irish put Michigan behind them or will the specter of that blowout haunt this game and other games to come? This is a veteran-laden team that has prided itself all year on accepting the challenges in front of it. Can it overcome a bad loss and right the ship? We'll find out today.