Virginia Tech has been playing football for 126 years and at Lane Stadium since 1965, and in that span, 69 different football teams have visited Lane for a contest against the Hokies.
None of those 69 has been Notre Dame – a fact that changes Saturday night.
Arguably college football’s most storied program makes its debut appearance in Blacksburg, and as to be expected of a program with 11 national championships, the Irish come in with a perfect 5-0 record and a gaudy No. 6 national ranking.
Hokie Nation has been waiting for this moment for quite some time. Former AD Jim Weaver tried to satisfy those fans’ cravings by scheduling the Irish over the course of his 16-year tenure, but Notre Dame’s administration always politely declined. Then in 2014, the ACC and Notre Dame started dating, with the stipulation that the Irish play five games a year against ACC schools.
Tech made its first pilgrimage to South Bend, Indiana, the Irish’s home, two years ago, and in front of “Touchdown Jesus,” rallied from a 17-point deficit to win. The cluster of Hokie fans in the upper deck of Notre Dame Stadium could be heard roaring loudly.
Now a much larger group of them want to do the same Saturday night, and the buzz keeps building, as the ABC/ESPN contingent rolls into campus starting today. The fans, for sure, are stoked.
As for the players, well, they view the game from different perspectives. This group, for the most part, doesn’t know the difference between Joe Montana and Joe Theismann. Jerome Bettis and Tim Brown resonate, but only vaguely.
“Not really,” Tech defensive back Jovonn Quillen admitted when asked if he was familiar with Notre Dame’s history. “I was a Hokie from the 75 [757 area code]. I was always watching Michael Vick, Tyrod [Taylor], and Kam Chancellor. I don’t really know much about Notre Dame. I didn’t until two years ago when we went to their stadium.”
Khalil Ladler, the Hokies’ starting whip/nickel, knows a little more of the Irish’s recent history – as in the past few years – but only because of a personal connection. He played with Notre Dame tailback Tony Jones Jr. and offensive lineman Robert Hainsey at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“It adds a little more juice to it,” Ladler said of playing against his former teammates.
Ryan Willis has a little more of an in-depth perspective, but only because of his Catholic background. He attended Bishop Miege, a Catholic school in Roeland Park, Kansas near his hometown.
“Just that alone, you kind of hear about Notre Dame here and there,” Willis said.
Certainly, Willis finds himself in an interesting situation. Eighteen months ago, he arrived at Tech as a transfer from Kansas without a scholarship and at the bottom of the quarterback depth chart. Now he finds himself making his first home start in one of the biggest games in school history.
The redshirt junior played well a week ago at Duke in his starting debut as a Hokie in place of the injured Josh Jackson, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns. But he’ll be facing a Notre Dame defense that allowed just 31 yards to Stanford in the second half this past Saturday.
So Willis needs to remain focused on the opponent – and not the moment.
“I feel like the more prepared you are, the less nerves you have,” Willis said. “You can be a little anxious about being ready for the game, but our coaching staff does a really good job of just calming us down throughout the day. The night games are a little more tough because we are just sitting around the hotel all day waiting for the game. Watching film, knowing the looks, going through our play script, and double and triple checking everything gives you more confidence going into the game.”
Understandably, the players and the coaching staff are trying to keep this game in its proper context. In their minds, this game is simply the next one on the schedule, and quite honestly, it bears no impact on the race for the ACC title.
In other words, they have repeated their team mantra all week thus far – go 1-0 this week, no looking behind or ahead.
“If we come in with the same energy that we had against Duke, just the same energy, we should be great,” Quillen said.
For fans, though, looking at this game as simply the next one on the schedule is hard. They view this one in a much broader sense.
For sure, Saturday night’s game will be historic. Truthfully, it could be epic.