Justin Fuente realizes his task might have gotten a little tougher.
It’s one thing to play Notre Dame. It’s another to play Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish are coming off a loss. In the last four seasons, Notre Dame is 5-0 after regular season losses. The No. 14 Irish (4-1) just lost 24-13 to Cincinnati.
Next up is Fuente’s Hokies (3-1) at 7:30 p.m. ET at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.
“I know they’re coming off a disappointment, which I know will just continue to fuel their fire to get back in the win column,” Funete said.
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One of the five games Notre Dame won in bounce-back fashion over the last four seasons was against Virginia Tech. The Irish beat the Hokies 21-20 in 2019 after losing to Michigan 45-14 the previous week.
Fuente is 1-2 against Notre Dame. He lost 45-23 to the Irish in 2018 but earned a huge 34-31 victory over the Irish in his first season at Virginia Tech in 2016. He knows first-hand the type of challenge Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s team presents.
“Tremendous challenge,” Fuente said. “Very talented, well coached, disciplined, tough football team coming in here. When you watch them play, you realize there’s a reason they’ve had so much success the last several years. Coach Kelly has done a fantastic job. They’re sound in their schemes and play with great effort, and they’ve got talent as well.”
This year’s Notre Dame team isn’t a mirror image of the two Fuente faced in 2018-19, though, and that starts with new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. Notre Dame ranks No. 8 nationally in turnovers forced in Freeman’s aggressive system.
“I think Marcus Freeman is a fantastic coach with a bright future,” Fuente said. “They gave up a couple big plays, missed a tackle or two in the first game and have played really solid defense ever since. They mix up their looks. The foundation is man coverage, but they mix up their looks and move their front and do quite a bit. They provide a tremendous challenge for everyone when you think about the diversity of looks you’re going to get and the talent of the people you’re going to try to play against.”
He added, “The thing that I took away from watching the Cincinnati game with Notre Dame is every inch, every piece of turf is going to be hard fought for. It’s going to be really difficult. Four yards is a big deal. We got to be emotionally prepared for that sort of game.”
On the other side of the ball, Fuente said has extensively studied the use of Notre Dame quarterbacks Jack Coan, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner. All three of played for the Irish in some capacity this season with Coan starting all five games, Buchner appearing in package-specific situations in three games and Pyne relieving Coan in the second half of the last two games.
“[Buchner] is obviously and athletic kid and can really run the ball,” Fuente said. “I see the offense changing the most when he’s in there. [Coan] and [Pyne] seem to be the more proficient passers. I would say the offense is similar with those two guys in there. So it adds a challenge; you’ve got to be ready for everything you’ve seen without spending all day chasing ghosts. You’ve got to be prepared for whatever the direction the game goes and whatever guy they choose to roll with.”
Fuente had specific praise for Pyne, who led both of Notre Dame’s touchdown drives against Cincinnati in a comeback effort that ultimately fell a bit short.
“I felt like just watching the game while Pyne was in there they were going to come back and win the game,” Fuente said. “They had some momentum there and were making some plays offensively. But we’ll have to be ready for all three.”
No matter who is playing quarterback for Notre Dame, the situation remains the same for Virginia Tech; the Hokies have a chance to earn a marquee victory that could jumpstart the second half of their season.
“We have an awesome opportunity here,” Fuente said. “We’re going to have a sold-out crowd. I’d imagine a raucous crowd with an unbelievable opportunity for our football team.”
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