The Tomahawk Chop. Death Valley. The Eyes of Texas. The Turnover Chain. For Notre Dame, these phrases conjure up nightmares of hostile environments and coming up short. Every Irish fan has heard the stat. Notre Dame is just 1-9 in true road games against teams ranked in the top 25 since a 2012 win against Oklahoma in Norman. The lone win came against Temple in 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field.
Notre Dame Aims To End Road Struggles
Sure, the Irish are 6-3 against similar teams at home during that span. They’ve had blowout wins over Stanford, USC, and NC State in the last two seasons; but they simply have not won enough big games on the road. In recent years, when Notre Dame leaves home, they leave their confidence behind. This Saturday, as the sixth-ranked Irish head to Blacksburg to take on 25th-ranked Virginia Tech, they aim to change that perception.
You don’t need to tell the team how raucous a crowd Lane Stadium hosts or how intimidating Enter Sandman can be; the song and crowd noise have been blaring through the speakers all week at practice. Head coach Brian Kelly looks to have learned a lesson since that rock flew into the window of the team bus as the Irish entered Hard Rock Stadium last fall. He is making certain the team is ready for the big stage. Has preparation been the problem all these years? Saturday night may answer this question.
Notre Dame Forced to Make Critical Personnel Change
Preparing for one of the loudest environments in college football is imperative now since the Irish lost perhaps their best offensive lineman and team captain for the season in left guard Alex Bars, who tore his ACL. Communication will be critical for the Notre Dame offensive line this week. Forcing senior Trevor Ruhland to make his second career start in a storm of noise will not make doing so any easier. Ruhland has appeared in 14 games over the past two seasons, but is that experience enough for him to play confidently in a stadium that registers on the Richter scale? Notre Dame and first-year offensive line coach Jeff Quinn certainly hope so.
The injury to Bars comes at an unfortunate time. Not only because of where Notre Dame travels Saturday night, but also because the Irish offensive line had started to come together in recent weeks. Since a lackluster performance against Ball State four weeks ago, in which blockers only opened enough holes for 117 rushing yards against an NCAA bottom feeder, the Irish backfield has churned out 245-, 241-, and 272-yard performances. The same unit that lost two top ten draft picks last April had established consistency and lead the offensive attack, but Bars’ injury puts that in question. Luckily, the Irish aren’t the only team entering this top-25 matchup missing a key player due to injury.
Hokies Facing Own Roster Woes
It wasn’t the only reason Old Dominion pulled off the upset of the college football season, but it definitely played a role. Hokies quarterback Josh Jackson was carted off the field in the 3rd quarter with a broken fibula. The loss of Jackson, who threw for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, is no doubt huge for Virginia Tech. The Hokies rebounded well last week under replacement Ryan Willis, though, who threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns in his first career start in a win over Duke. Willis has not faced a defense the caliber of Notre Dame, though.
Irish defensive lineman Jerry Tillery was awarded National Defensive Player of the Week for his four-sack performance against Stanford. Notre Dame boasts a secondary with six interceptions through five games. Willis will have to deal with what is proving to be one of the best pass rushes in the nation while attempting to complete passes on cornerback Julian Love, who last week set the record for most pass breakups in a career at Notre Dame with 33. The Hokies are also dealing with the loss of defensive lineman Trevon Hill, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss through three games before being dismissed from the team. Virginia Tech held Duke to just 14 points last week without Hill. The Irish will certainly take advantage of his absence.
Improved Irish Offense Shows Room To Grow
Notre Dame is also fielding a quarterback with limited experience in Ian Book, who is making his third career start. Book has led the Irish to wins against LSU and Stanford but has not played in a place like Lane Stadium. In last week’s win over Stanford, Book did not seem the least bit phased by the magnitude of facing off against a top ten team. The redshirt sophomore displayed a sixth-sense like feel for pressure, impressive decision making, and accuracy on his way to a 278 yard, four touchdown performance. If Book can carry the same level of poise into Blacksburg, the combination of him and the return of running back Dexter Williams could lessen the impact of the loss of Bars up front.
The aforementioned Williams, who returned to the lineup for the first time last week after serving a four-game suspension, ran for 161 yards and a score in his senior debut. His explosiveness was clear as he took off for a 45-yard touchdown run on his first carry of the season. Williams was not expected to be handed the amount of carries he had against Stanford when he was given the ball 21 times in place of the injured Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. The latter may return this week after spraining his ankle last Saturday, but after breaking out the way he did, expect Williams to get as many or more carries this week.
One Final Test?
Talk of Notre Dame making the playoff has already escalated from message boards to the front page of every site covering college football. Vegas has adjusted their odds to reflect the new look Irish offense. With Virginia Tech currently the only ranked team remaining on the schedule, some Irish fans have started discussing travel plans to Miami and Dallas, the two possible landing spots for the top four teams.
Many Notre Dame fans and players, however, remember past trips to Florida State, Clemson, Stanford, and Miami. They can tell you where they were when the offensive pass interference flag fell in Tallahassee or when DeShone Kizer fell a yard short of the goal line in Death Valley. They remember Stanford’s last-second kick in 2015 and the shine of the turnover chain under those bright Miami lights.
Notre Dame has played in hostile road environments many times. And over the past six seasons, they’ve come up with one win in ten trips against top teams on the road. The Irish want to make this trip to Lane Stadium different. Can Notre Dame overcome their struggles against ranked teams on the road, and avoid adding Enter Sandman to the long list of phrases that make Notre Dame fans cringe? The road to recovery starts….well, on the road.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the 2012 game against Oklahoma in Norman was a Notre Dame win.
Embed from Getty Images