SOUTH BEND, Ind. —There’s nothing predictable about this Virginia Tech football team.
The Hokies, who went to Notre Dame as 17.5-point underdogs to face a No. 16 Fighting Irish squad that beat Tech by three TDs last season, were within a half-minute of a shocking upset.
Quarterback Ian Book dashed those upset hopes with a 7-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds to go and gave the Fighting Irish a 21-20 victory.
Book made a group of Tech defenders miss on the keeper with a juke move before bouncing it to the outside to cap off a miraculous 18-play, 87-yard scoring drive that featured a fourth-down conversion from Tech’s 33-yard line.
“It’s a rough locker room in there,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “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.”
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster gave Notre Dame credit for making a gutsy call to have Book run it with no timeouts on third down inside the 10-yard line.
“I was thinking they were a little bit further out, I thought maybe the time was going to restrict them with no timeouts a little bit,” Foster said. “That’s kind of a big call. If it works, it’s a great call. If it doesn’t, now it’s fourth down ... with the clock running and panic mode for maybe both sides.”
Tech’s defense looked like they might pull out a win after forcing Notre Dame to come up empty-handed earlier in the quarter. The Irish drove nearly the length of the field down to the 3-yard line, but Jonathan Doerer missed a 35-yard field goal wide right.
Notre Dame benefited from a suspect roughing the passer penalty on Eli Adams that negated a tremendous leaping interception from Armani Chatman. The only reason Chatman was in the game was that starting defensive back Jermaine Waller had been disqualified for targeting on the play before the interception that wasn’t.
“I think we’ve got a good, young talented group of kids that are coming along,” Foster said. “To come in here and to play like they did and to handle a lot of situations, I think it shows where we’ve come and where we can go.”
Tech led nearly the entire second half thanks to a series of key plays, ranging from Divine Deablo making a diving interception in the end zone, to Tre Turner’s 50-yard grab as he was blanketed by defensive back Troy Pride Jr., to Brian Johnson knocking through a rare 40-plus-yard field goal in the second half. It started to look like all these moments would add up to Tech’s fourth straight win.
There also was a 98-yard fumble return for a TD from Deablo in the final moments of the first half that turned the game upside down and had Foster smiling despite his defense giving up 243 yards of total offense in the first two quarters.
The Hokies were about to go down 21-7 when middle linebacker Rayshard Ashby jarred the ball loose from Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong at the 1-yard line.
Deablo grabbed the ball out of midair with only the quarterback in front of him to beat and stunned the crowd of 70,000-plus with the coast-to-coast return — the longest in program history going back to at least 1987 and longest by an opposing team against Notre Dame all-time. It resulted in a 14-14 halftime score.
As Deablo was mobbed by his teammates, Foster pulled off his headset and broke into a grin as a dedicated group of Hokies fans located in the corner of the end zone made themselves known.
It was a huge momentum swing after Tech had just fumbled at midfield on a handoff exchange.
While Notre Dame was able to consistently move the ball throughout the half, the fumble and an interception in the red zone by Book early in the game prevented the Irish from taking command of the game. Going 3 of 10 on third down in the half didn’t help Notre Dame either.
Tech’s opportunistic defense helped overshadow an ugly offensive performance .
With starting quarterback Hendon Hooker still out due the leg injury he suffered before the off week, Tech turned once again to former third-stringer Quincy Patterson.
Patterson, who brought Tech back multiple times from the brink of defeat against North Carolina, didn’t have nearly the same kind of success. He started the game 0 for 6, with the offense going three-and-out on seven of the team’s nine drives in the half.
Tech’s scoring drive in the first half was due in large part to a series of miscues by Notre Dame — a botched punt and 30 yards worth of penalties (kick catching interference and face mask) — that gave the Hokies the ball at the Irish 26-yard line.
Patterson converted a fourth-and-4 on the drive with a 12-yard throw to Damon Hazelton on the outside. On the next play, Hazelton caught his fifth touchdown in three games to tie the game 7-7 with 1:15 to go in the first quarter.
Tech finished the half with five first downs and 85 total yards of offense.
Patterson was 9 of 28 for 139 yards with a touchdown and interception. He ran the ball 19 times for 77 yards. As a team, the Hokies ran the ball 36 times for 101 yards (2.8 yards per carry).
“They were definitely not going to let us run the ball,” Fuente said. “They were very stacked in there. I’m a little disappointed. I’m going to have to look at, that we didn’t make more plays in the passing game and we didn’t create a lot of separation.”