SOUTH BEND – In a sense, Notre Dame has done exactly what it came to do in the first half of this game against Virginia Tech. The Irish wanted more physicality this week and they've gotten it, giving the Hokies almost no room to breathe on running plays and forcing quarterback Quincy Patterson II into a 23.5% completion percentage.
Of course, some of those impressive numbers are a result of the Hokies being almost completely inept on offense. Patterson is the team's third-string quarterback, starting today because Hendon Hooker, who had helped lead VT to three straight wins is out with a knee injury. He had been probable to play, but that might have been some gamesmanship from Hokies coach Justin Fuente, who generally plays injury status close to the vest. Still, the Irish have done a good job of shutting down the Virginia Tech run game after struggling in that area against Michigan and USC. The linebackers and defensive ends have looked fast and the Hokies have averaged just 2.8 yards per carry.
The Irish have dominated this game statistically, but have not been able to put distance between themselves and Virginia Tech. VT got a cheap touchdown in the second quarter thanks to a pair of dumb 15-yard penalties on the Irish and a missed offensive pass interference call on the touchdown throw from Patterson to Damon Hazelton (Hazelton pretty blatantly pushed off to get separation from Troy Pride Jr.). Late in the half, the Hokies tied the game for a second time on a 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Jafar Armstrong lost the ball and the Hokies returned it all the way for a score to knot the game at 14 with nine seconds left in the first half, a potential game-turning play.
That score kept the Hokies in the game and Notre Dame's offense has remained too inconsistent. There have been flashes of improvement, especially from Armstrong (though the fumble obviously put a damper on any good feelings from him in the half), who is carrying a heavy load today because Tony Jones Jr. out with a rib injury. Armstrong has 12 carries for 28 yards and a catch on a well-designed screen that gained 26 yards and set up the second Irish touchdown. Ian Book also made a couple of good throws downfield early in the game, though Notre Dame seemed to mostly abandon the deep passing game in the second quarter for some reason. Those good moments have been balanced out by more hesitancy from Book in the pocket, more missed receivers downfield and an absolutely inexcusable interception in the red zone in which Book and tight end Cole Kmet were not on the same about the route Kmet was supposed to run. It's very much a Groundhog Day feeling for this offense, which seems to have the same problems week after week.
Maybe the most worrisome development in the first half was the injury to offensive lineman and captain Robert Hainsey. It looked like he got rolled up on and he was unable to put weight on his left leg as he left the field and went immediately to the locker room. He later returned to the sideline on crutches. His injury throws the offensive line to further flux after the injury to Tommy Kraemer last week. Josh Lugg replaced Hainsey and the line has done a fairly good job in the first half, giving Book time to throw and opening (slight) holes for Armstrong. The Irish will likely miss Hainsey's leadership on the field, however.
Notre Dame is the better team, though that is not a particularly impressive feat against a Virginia Tech squad that looks less than impressive, especially offensively. The Irish should still win this game, but it seems as though the problems that arose against Michigan have not yet been corrected.