SOUTH BEND – When Notre Dame needed to make a play against Virginia Tech, it went to Chase Claypool.
The No. 16 Irish beat the Hokies 21-20 thanks in large part to the 6-foot-4 senior wide receiver, who caught eight passes for 118 yards, including two of the biggest catches on Notre Dame's 18-play, 87-yard game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter.
Claypool is a potential top pick in next spring's NFL draft, but he had not reached 100 yards receiving this season before erupting against the Hokies. Part of the reason for the eruption was the game plan. Notre Dame tried to find him as often as it could, with quarterback Ian Book targeting the big wideout a whopping 17 times.
Deep passing was a more prominent part of the Irish strategy against Virginia Tech than in any previous game this season, and Claypool was the preferred target when Book looked down the field.
“He's awesome,” the quarterback said of Claypool. “He works hard every day and he's a leader on our offense, makes my job a lot easier, so I can't thank him enough.”
Claypool's work on the final drive is indicative of his value as a receiver. His first catch was a nifty grab along the sideline in which he dragged his back foot on the turf an instant before his front foot landed out of bounds.
Lest anyone wonder whether that fancy footwork was just lucky, cornerback Troy Pride Jr., who faces off with Claypool every week, said such receptions are routine for the receiver in practice.
“It's funny because I've been frustrated by that foot all year,” Pride said, smiling broadly. “It's like, golly, I'm in velcro coverage, there it is and I look down and I just see him dragging that foot and I'm like, wow. He's just a special player.
“Just to see (the catch along the sideline), it was crazy, I'm like, 'Don't need to review that, just keep going because he caught it.'”
Claypool's second grab on the drive was arguably the biggest play of the game for the Irish. Facing fourth-and-10 from the Virginia Tech 36 with less than a minute to play, the Canadian wideout ran a well-executed post route and made himself available for a 26-yard reception inside the Hokies' 10-yard line.
It was the type of play where a No. 1 wide receiver can expect the ball to come in his direction, and Claypool made a play that might prove to be a turning point in the second half of Notre Dame's season.
“He's a go-to guy and a go-to guy has to make big plays in big situations,” coach Brian Kelly said. “So fourth-and-10, we're going to call your number, you have to make a big play.
“(Claypool) is still the same guy. ... But I just think that penchant for wanting the ball and not being afraid of the big moments, that's probably the biggest change from (last year to this year).”
Notes: Kelly announced that offensive lineman and captain Robert Hainsey has a broken ankle and will have surgery Thursday. The junior is likely out for the rest season. ... Running back Tony Jones Jr., who missed Saturday's game with a rib injury, was close to playing and is expected to be fully healthy next week against Duke. ...
The Irish secured a commitment from former Ohio State safety Isaiah Pryor, who will be a graduate transfer to Notre Dame and have two years of eligibility remaining. The 6-2, 200-pound Lawrenceville, Georgia, native was the No. 63 overall player in the 2017 recruiting class and started seven games for the Buckeyes in 2018.