SOUTH BEND — The College Football Playoff is no longer an option for Notre Dame. A New Year’s Six bowl game also appears to be a long shot. So, what do the No. 16 Fighting Irish have to play for this weekend against Virginia Tech?
“You don’t want a game like that to define who you are,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, referencing the Irish’s 45-14 blowout loss to Michigan last Saturday. “This is a team that has a lot of pride, that’s won a lot of football games. We’re going to be coming back home — I think we have a 15-game win streak at home. … There’s a lot that these young men want to put forth this weekend.”
Kelly was right — Notre Dame does have a 15-game home winning streak. They’ll look to make it 16 in a row Saturday against Virginia Tech (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
Both teams come into the game with 5-2 records, albeit against different levels of competition. After starting the year 2-2, the Hokies have rattled off three-straight wins against Miami (Florida), Rhode Island and North Carolina. Their latest win against the Tar Heels two weeks ago came in dramatic fashion, as Virginia Tech won 43-41 in six overtimes. The Hokies recorded a game-winning safety in the sixth overtime to knock off UNC.
Virginia Tech has not played a ranked team all year, though, and two of their wins — Furman and Rhode Island — came over FCS opponents. Meanwhile, the Irish have played three ranked teams, going 1-2 in those contests, and zero FCS teams. So, although both teams are 5-2, Notre Dame enters Saturday as a 17-point favorite over the Hokies.
After a week like last week, though, Kelly knows his team needs to be focused if they want to get their sixth win and become bowl eligible.
“We're going to have to get back to really who we are and our standards,” Kelly said. “We do that, and we should be playing the kind of football that we played over the last three years.”
Virginia Tech has had a revolving door at quarterback this season, and it appears that will continue this week against the Irish. While senior Ryan Willis has the most pass attempts, sophomore Hendon Hooker has also seen considerable time at the QB position. Willis has thrown nine touchdowns and five interceptions, while Hooker has seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Hooker also can get it done running, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown on 48 attempts this year. The sophomore has started all three games during the recent winning streak by the Hokies.
“They’re very athletic,” senior defensive end Julian Okwara said. “They have multiple quarterbacks who can go out there and play winning football for those guys. They have very skilled receivers and their o-line is improving every week. They put up a lot of points. They’re relentless; they won’t stop.
“We know we have to play harder and play our brand of football and be the better team on Saturday.”
Defensively, the Hokies give up nearly 400 yards a game, including 250 through the air. This should set up to be a favorable matchup for the Irish as they try and bounce back from one of the worst offensive performances under Kelly.
Notre Dame had 180 total yards last week against Michigan, 95 of which came on the final two drives with backups in. Redshirt junior quarterback Ian Book had a disastrous night, completing just 32 percent of his pass attempts for 73 yards and one touchdown.
“I’m looking forward to another good defense and another good opponent,” junior tight end Cole Kmet said. “This week, I’m going back to the basics and working on my craft and working on what I have to do to get open for Ian.”
These two teams met in Blacksburg last year, with Notre Dame emerging with a 45-23 victory. The win solidified the Irish as a playoff contender, moving them into the top five of the AP rankings for the first time all season.
That was last year, though. This year, the Irish are just hoping to finish the 2019 season as strong as possible.
“We didn’t win last week, I get it, and we’re all disappointed. But we’re going to move on and we’re going to learn from it; we’re going to be humbled because of it and we’re going to get back to being who we are. It happens,” Kelly said. “Ohio State lost 49-20 last year to Purdue. They did OK after that. I’m sure it was a bad week in Columbus that week, just like it’s going to be a bad week (this past week) here in South Bend. I get that. We’re going to keep coaching.
“This game teaches you great lessons. I get it: winning is important, and our nation wants to win, and I want to win too. But you can learn great lessons from this game, too. Our guys learned some lessons, our coaches learned from it, I’ve learned from it. And, we’re going to carry those things moving forward.”