SOUTH BEND, Ind. — You have to have a heart before it can be broken.

And over the past month, that’s what Virginia Tech has demonstrated: The Hokies have one big old thumping ticker that beats collectively. They care, they’re competitive and they’re capable — all facts that weren’t so certain as recently as Sept. 27, when they were destroyed at home by Duke.

None of that made them feel much better after Saturday’s 21-20 loss to No. 16 Notre Dame. Not immediately, anyway — the plane ride home had to be a quiet one — but it will benefit them eventually.

As Tech’s depth continues to dwindle and more fresh faces enter the fray, the Hokies may yet see this season get away from them. But at least they know their makeup.

They are fighters. And that is commendable.

It’s why coach Justin Fuente opened his postgame news conference with four obvious words — “It’s a tough one” — and then lapsed into a pause that lasted a full 11 seconds. The right message is difficult to conjure when you were on the cusp of something special only to see it fail to happen.

The Hokies were one fourth-down stop, one big play on offense, one crucial sack away from becoming the first ACC team ever to beat a ranked Notre Dame team at this venue. Instead, that record dropped to 0-22 when Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book dashed into the end zone with 29 seconds remaining.

Here’s the thing: That six-overtime victory over North Carolina two weeks ago easily could have ended just like this one did. Fuente knew it, too. That’s why he made a point that night to stress that he would have been just as proud of his players had the Tar Heels won that game.

The same can — and should — apply here, even if some folks probably won’t want to hear it. The Hokies walked into this place as 17.5-point underdogs with a redshirt freshman who started the year as the No. 3 quarterback under center. They hobbled out of here emotionally spent, full of regrets, but justifiably secure in the idea that there wasn’t any more to give.

“We just continue to battle and fight and scratch and claw,” Fuente said. “It’s a rough locker room in there. It’s a group of guys that played hard, prepared well for a very good football team, on the road and in a hostile environment and almost pulled it off.

“It doesn’t count for much other than I’m awfully proud of our football team. I can tell you that much.”

The Hokies held the hosts two touchdowns below their season scoring average. They shut out the Irish in the third quarter and most of the second and fourth.

A group that was hapless for most of the game against Duke is now finding ways to get off the field.

“We can learn from it,” Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “I think it gives us an indicator, particularly these last few weeks, of when we lock in and we believe and we trust and we put the effort into it, that we have a result that we can win every football game.”

He’s right. No remaining regular-season game looks unwinnable given the way the Hokies have been playing lately. Nor will any of them be a cinch — especially as injuries continue to mount.

The most recent players to suffer ailments include punter Oscar Bradburn, defensive backs Caleb Farley and Armani Chapman and defensive tackle Dashawn Crawford.

Offensive tackle Silas Dzansi left the field Saturday in a walking boot. Starting quarterback Hendon Hooker didn’t practice enough this past week for Fuente to feel comfortable playing him.

“I feel great about our character, work ethic, togetherness,” Fuente said. “I feel awesome about our chemistry. We’ve got four games in a row here. We are going to have to patch it together health-wise to give ourselves a chance.”

They can start by mending their broken hearts — a process that, given the effort displayed here on Saturday, needn’t take very long at all.

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