CAMPUS CHECK IN: Irish prepare for the Hokies – and ‘Enter Sandman’

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BLACKSBURG, VA - OCTOBER 21: Fans of the Virginia Tech Hokies jump up and down during "Enter Sandman" prior to the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Lane Stadium on October 21, 2017 in Blacksburg, Virginia. Virginia Tech defeated North Carolina 59-7. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

SOUTH BEND – Some who were wondering if Notre Dame belonged in the Top 10 in the rankings got some more reassurance last week.

Seventh-ranked Stanford came into South Bend and watched the Irish take control of the game in the second half and pull away to 38-17 victory.

It vaulted Brian Kelly’s team up to sixth in the polls, aligning them for a possible run at a College Football Playoff berth. Yet it’s only October, and Notre Dame already has a major test coming after their biggest win of the season.

While their stunning loss to Old Dominion has taken the shine off their season, No. 24 Virginia Tech still presents a formidable challenge to the Irish this Saturday night when they meet at Lane Stadium. The Hokies righted things last week by beating then No. 22 Duke on the road, and now they can bring their season back with a win over Notre Dame.

Not only will Kelly have to deal with a challenge from the Virginia Tech, but also the raucous crowd in Blacksburg that make it one of the more intimidating venues in College Football. It all begins with their famous “Enter Sandman” entrance in which the Metallica song is played to rev up thousands of Hokies’ fans.

“Everybody knows about “Enter Sandman.” It’s a ritual there since 2000 where they really get that place rocking.
Our job is to handle the environment and go in and play really good football,” said Kelly. “If we do that and handle the environment, handle ourselves and our preparation, we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

The last time Notre Dame went on the road to such a place, things didn’t go so well. In front of a loud, enthusiastic crowd at Hard Rock Stadium last November, the Irish were dominated by Miami in a 41-8 defeat that knocked them out of the National Championship conversation.

“If we can’t handle the environment, we can’t prepare the right way this week because we’re distracted because everybody’s telling us how great we are, then we’ll be in big trouble,” said Kelly. “This team’s shown an ability to prepare the right way, a maturity to stay away from the distractions.”

NORTHWESTERN: No Rush To Judgement

EVANSTON – This is not the time for a team to hit the road to face a ranked opponent, especially after three-straight home losses and the team dealing with the loss of one of their best offensive players.

But that’s the situation for Pat Fitzgerald right now at Northwestern. A 17-0 lead against then No. 14 Michigan evaporated at Ryan Field as the Wildcats lost to the Wolverines 20-17.

Now Northwestern hits the road for the first time in a month to face 21st-ranked Michigan State, doing so in their second game without Jeremy Larkin, whose career was ended with a diagnosis of cervical stenosis during the off week.

That means John Moten IV and the other Wildcats running back will have to do something no one has done well against the Spartans this year – run the football.

Michigan State has the No. 1 rushing defense in all of FBS, allowing just 40 rushing yard a game to their opponents. To put that dominance in perspective, the next closest team, San Diego State, is allowing 64.5 yards a game.

Rushing was an issue in the first game without Larkin, with Moten gaining just 36 yards and the offense as a whole getting 28 on 34 carries.

“We’ve got to have more production. We’re in a production business, we didn’t produce enough and now we’re going up against the No. 1 rush defense in the country, so buckle up,” said Fitzgerald of the running backs. “I thought they all adjusted fine. It was a challenging week, no doubt about that.”

ILLINOIS: Look Familiar?

CHAMPAIGN – When Lovis Smith is scouting his opponents this week, he will see a program in a very similar situation.

Like Illinois, Rutgers is undergoing a major rebuild under a third-year head coach, and taking a healthy amount of bumps along the way.

The Scarlet Knights have struggled so far in the third campaign under Chris Ash, going 1-4 on the season, with three of their losses coming by 29 or more points. A seven-point loss to Indiana is arguably their highlight of the season outside of an opening week win over Texas State.

Illinois has lost their last two games including a loss to Penn State that was more than the 63-24 final score. The Illini were within three going to the fourth quarter before the Nittany Lions blitzed them for 35 points in the final 15 minutes.

If Smith has any hopes for a bowl in 2018, this week’s game in Piscataway is basically a must win. The coach was trying to downplay that importance or the comparisons of the programs this week.

“For us, you just can’t look too far ahead. We understand the challenge ahead of us this week. It’s always tough when you go on the road,” said Smith. “Two teams that feel like they have to have this game,┬áthat’s what were concentrating on as much as anything, and all of our thoughts are going into Rutgers. This is as big of a game as we’ve had in a long time as we see it.

“Right now, the one thing that can help our program is to get a win against a Big Ten opponent this week. That’s the best thing we can do right now to help our program.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Can They Stay Perfect?

DEKALB – Rod Carey’s team remained undefeated in the MAC last weekend – but just barely.

Northern Illinois needed three overtimes to finally knock off Eastern Michigan on the road last Saturday, but the victory keeps them at the top of the MAC West division with a 2-0 conference record.

A second-straight road trip is ahead of them as they travel to Muncie to face Ball State, who won their conference opener against Kent State 52-24.

Fans will likely remember the Cardinals’ excellent effort against Notre Dame, as Ball State held their own in South Bend and lost by just 8 points.

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