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Notre Dame Football: Virginia Cavaliers Preview

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Pat Rick, despite all the heartbreak of thinking about last Saturday, breaks down Notre Dame’s match-up with #18 Virginia tomorrow afternoon

NCAA Football: William & Mary at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Well, folks, it’s been a rough week for Notre Dame Fighting Irish football fans as we’ve picked up the pieces of our shattered hearts after our beloved Irish once again came close to pulling off a monumental road win, only to come up juuuuuust short in the end.

However, as a wise man once said about situations like this...

So, it’s time we deal with this, collectively as a Notre Dame community, and really get after it for the rest of the season. 11-1 is ABSOLUTELY on the table and if the Irish can make that happen, a New Year’s 6 bowl is the floor. That wouldn’t stink, eh?

So, with that said, it’s time to turn our collective fanatic attention to the #18 Virginia Cavaliers, who will be invading Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow with a renewed gusto under coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has truly turned the program around considering the 2-10 season he suffered through in his first season in Charlottesville.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-South Carolina vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Wahoos have won all of their games to-date, beating the Pittsburgh Panthers by two scores on the road in the opener, kicking the teeth in of both William & Mary, edging out the Florida State Seminoles, and then surviving a bit of a scare from the Old Dominion Monarchs last weekend before pulling away to win by 11.

Virginia comes to South Bend with a middling offense, but their defense has been pretty damn good, sitting 14th in total defense (34th in pass defense, 12th in rush defense), tied for 28th in scoring defense (allowing 18 ppg), tied for 29th in interceptions, and tied for 1st in sacks (20 team sacks through 4 games — !!!).

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

SP+ rankings have Virginia much lower than their current AP ranking, though, as Bill Connelly’s math has the Cavaliers ranked 37th overall, as their #80 offense and #51 special teams drag down their #18 defensive SP+ rating.

The #10 Irish, meanwhile, come into this game as the #12 team in SP+ overall (14th on offense, 35th on defense, 4th on special teams), and add another key offensive piece back to the rotation with the return of wide receiver Michael Young from a broken collarbone. Starting TE Cole Kmet made his return from a broken collarbone against Georgia last weekend, and was easily one of the best ND players in that game. The Irish are hoping Young can come back in a strong way as well, and inject a little life into an ND offense that has struggled against the Power 5 opponents it’s faced so far in 2019.

So, how will the afternoon match-up between these two top-20 teams go tomorrow? Let’s dive into the details to find out, eh?

Virginia Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

As I mentioned above, Virginia’s offense is not exactly elite, with an ESPN efficiency ranking of 52nd in the country, an SP+ rank of 80th, and not-great rankings in total offense (95th), passing offense (76th), rushing offense (94th), and 3rd down conversion rate (52nd).

However, the Cavaliers are 41st in the nation in scoring with 35.3 points per game, and they absolutely have enough talent in offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s crew to be dangerous. That danger and play-making ability begin with QB Bryce Perkins, a dual-threat guy who has thrown for 824 yards and 6 TDs through the first 4 games of the year, while also running for 193 yards on nearly 4 yards per carry and adding a couple touchdowns with his legs. The dude is elusive and is definitely a play-maker with the ball in his hands.

Considering that Louisville Cardinals QB Jawon Pass had some decent success on the ground against this ND defense, it will be interesting to see what Perkins is able to do and how Clark Lea has his defense more prepared to deal with a running threat at QB this time around. The Notre Dame linebackers were MUCH improved against Georgia last week and really stepped up to contain their running game, but Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (19 tackles, 4.5 TFL), Drew White (14 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack), and Asmar Bilal (15 tackles, 2 TFL) didn’t have to worry too much about Bulldogs QB Jake Fromm scampering away for huge gains very often.

The key will certainly be one of those guys acting as a spy on Perkins at all times, or at least not getting lost in the middle of the field and giving Perkins tons of room to scramble into for first downs. The ability of the Irish defensive line to hold the point of attack and not help the Cavaliers create big gaps up the middle will also be very important. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (9 tackles) and Kurt Hinish (2 tackles, 1 sack) and Jayson Ademilola (8 tackles, 2 TFL) will all need to hold their ground and stay in their lanes in order to help contain Perkins within the pocket.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Louisville Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Perkins, despite his mobility, has already been sacked 7 times this season — mostly because the UVA offensive line isn’t exactly fantastic. With that knowledge, another key in containing Perkins on passing downs will be how quickly Julian Okwara (4 tackles, 1 sack), Khalid Kareem (8 tackles), Daelin Hayes (6 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack), and Adetokunbo Ogundeji (9 tackles, 1 FF) can get to him coming off the edge. That crew, for all their hype coming into the year, hasn’t had an explosive, big-number-of-sacks game yet in this young season, so look for all of them to play with a little extra fire as they take on the challenge of running down a talented athlete like Perkins.

If the pass rush is able to get to Perkins a bit and force him to hurry some throws, it could lead to some turnovers for the Irish. Perkins has already thrown 4 interceptions this year, so despite his 65% completion rate, we could definitely see a turnover or two through the air as guys like Alohi Gilman (23 tackles, 1 PD, 1 FF), Jalen Elliott (14 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT), and Kyle Hamilton (7 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT return for a TD) capitalize on forced or errant passes.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Corners Troy Pride Jr. (5 tackles, 1 PD), Crawford (10 tackles, 1 PD, 1 INT), and TaRiq Bracy (8 tackles, 3 PD) will be tasked with covering a few pretty talented receivers at the back end. Joe Reed is an electric receiver who also doubles as likely the best kick returner in the country. His speed and vision are top-notch, which explains why he already has 23 catches, 215 yards, and 3 TD receiving this year.

Add in other talented receivers like Hasise Dubois (16 rec, 191 yds, 1 TD), Terrell Jana (15 rec, 174 yds), Terrell Chatman (4 rec, 77 yds, 1 TD), and TE Tanner Cowley (7 rec, 76 yds), and the Cavaliers certainly have some guys who could do some damage if they get behind the Irish secondary.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Luckily for ND fans, the Irish are 17th in pass defense (157.3 ypg) and 20th in yards allowed per attempt (5.7), so the key will absolutely be Clark Lea’s defense bottling up Perkins and RB Wayne Taulapapa on the ground, especially considering the Irish are still 110th in the country in rushing defense and 107th in yards per rushing attempt allowed (4.9).

Taulapapa is a very solid running back who has 152 yards and 5 TDs this year while picking up 3.9 yards per carry. Between him and Perkins, the Cavaliers have the ability to gash the Irish for chunks of yards to move the chains, but as we saw last week with Georgia, it appears ND might have figured out how to buckle down on the ground game. It will be intriguing to see if they can continue that effort and focus this weekend.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, I think Virginia has some real studs like Perkins, Reed, Dubois, and Taulapapa who could give them problems, but after seeing what Clark Lea and his 8th-ranked defense in ESPN’s efficiency ratings could do against the juggernaut that is the Georgia offense, I think the Irish can be plenty effective at home against a decent, but largely untested, Virginia offense.

Offensive Cavalier to Watch

QB Bryce Perkins

This offense can only go so far as Perkins takes them against the stifling ND defense, and Perkins is exactly the type of QB that has already proven to give them fits, considering what happened against Louisville for much of that game. Expect Perkins’ performance to correlate CLOSELY with however Virginia performs overall, as they will need him bringing his A-game in order to score enough to have a chance tomorrow.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Irish to Watch

DEs Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem

These two were on a bunch of preseason watch lists and getting all sorts of hype as one of the best defensive end tandems in the country, but they both have been pretty quiet. The Irish NEED them to make more big plays, forcing QBs into bad decisions and hitting/sacking them enough to make them think twice about dropping back to pass. Perkins will be a tough but good test for them, as he can be elusive and make plays with his feet, but if he’s forced into tight situations and bad decisions, he’s shown the capacity for turning it over already this season.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Halftime Funtime

Best Names in the Game

  1. Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
  2. Virginia WR Hasise Dubois
  3. Virginia LB Zane Zandier
  4. Notre Dame LS Axel Raarup
  5. Notre Dame S Litchfield Ajavon
  6. Virginia DB Fentrell Cypress II
  7. Virginia FB Jamari Peacock
  8. Virginia DB Tenyeh Dixon
  9. Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
  10. Virginia OL Olusegun Oluwatimi
  11. Virginia RB Wayne Taulapapa
  12. Notre Dame DL Hunter Spears
  13. Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
  14. Notre Dame DE Nana Osafo-Mensah
  15. Virginia WR Dontayvion Wicks
  16. Virginia DB Major Williams
  17. Notre Dame CB Temitope Agoro
  18. Notre Dame DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji
  19. Virginia DE Ben Smiley III
  20. Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong
  21. Virginia OT Ja’Quay Hubbard
  22. Virginia WR Ugo Obasi
  23. Virginia LB Jairus Satiu
  24. Virginia CB Germane Crowell
  25. Virginia LS Tucker Finkelston

Notre Dame Offense vs. Virginia Defense

The Notre Dame offense did not have the best game ever against Georgia, folks.

9 of their 11 offensive drives went for 30 yards or less. 8 of 11 ended in either a punt or a turnover. They managed to run for just 46 yards. The false starts and dropped passes didn’t help either. It just wasn’t a great night for the Irish, even when you consider it was against a very good, athletic, fast Georgia defense.

Fast-forward to tomorrow, and the defense that Notre Dame will be facing won’t be quiiiiiite that good, but Virginia’s defense is still pretty damn impressive and easily the strength of the team. Their numbers are perhaps a bit inflated from playing some not great teams to-date, but the Hoos are currently 14th in total defense (34th in pass defense, 12th in rushing defense), tied for 28th in scoring defense (allowing just 18 ppg), tied for 29th in interceptions (4), and tied for 1st in the country in sacks with 20 (along with the Florida Gators).

That pass rush that’s put up those sack numbers is really what the Irish need to be worried most about, as Virginia has some very talented guys who can really get after the quarterback — and as we’ve seen, the best way to get Ian Book out of his element is to get pressure on him early and often.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-South Carolina vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The group who will try to do that is led by LB Jordan Mack, who is tied for 6th in the country right now with 5 sacks on the year. He’s also racked up 29 tackles (T-1st on the team), 6 TFL, and 2 QB hurries. Fellow linebackers Charles Snowden (28 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 QBH, 2 PD) and Noah Taylor (13 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 PD) have added 3 more sacks each, and do-it-all LB Zane Zandier (29 tackles, 1 INT for a TD, 5 TFL, 1 PD) has 2 of his own so far.

Safety Joey Blount has 2 sacks to go along with his 25 tackles and an interception, and then guys like DT Aaron Faumui, DE Richard Burney, and DT Eli Hanback have also gotten into the havoc-wreaking mix in getting to the QB for sacks.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

All in all, this group LOVES to bring pressure, and the inconsistent play of the Irish offensive line to-date means Ian Book may have to do a lot of crafty scrambling and maneuvering in the pocket in order to buy himself enough time to find his receivers.

If he’s able to find the time to throw to those receivers, though, he’s got some fantastic weapons to work with right now. Chase Claypool has been fantastic, racking up 15 catches for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns, and TE Cole Kmet was an absolute stud in his return from a broken collarbone last weekend against Georgia, snaring 9 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown of his own.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Add in shifty and typically reliable guys like Chris Finke (7 rec, 81 yds, 1 TD this year) and Lawrence Keys III (7 rec, 70 yds) and guys who have the ability to contribute a few big plays per game like Tommy Tremble (5 rec, 98 yds, 1 TD) and Javon McKinley (3 rec, 96 yds, 2 TD), and Book truly has some weapons.

And, of course, that’s not even to mention WR Michael Young, who makes his own return from a broken collarbone this weekend. ND is slowly but surely getting their starters back, and the offense’s production should kick it up a notch accordingly.

Ian Book, despite some rough moments, has had a solid year so far, throwing for 828 yards, 8 TD, and 2 INT while completing about 62% of his passes. However, the Virginia secondary is pretty stout, led by All-American cornerback Bryce Hall (15 tackles, 4 PD, 3 TFL, 1 sack). Add in guys like safeties De’Vante Cross (18 tackles, 1 PD) and Brenton Nelson (13 tackles, 1 PD) and corner Nick Grant (13 tackles, 3 PD, 1 INT for a TD), and there are enough play-makers in the back half of the defense to capitalize on any Book mistakes made when the pressure gets to him.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Hopefully for ND, they will be able to run the ball a bit better than they did against Georgia, although Virginia has shown so far to be very adept at shutting down the run. The Hoos are 9th in the country in yards allowed per rushing attempt at just 2.2, and considering the Irish rushing game at this point is almost exclusively Tony Jones Jr. (148 yds, 4.9 ypc, 1 TD) and Ian Book scrambling (145 yds, 5.6 ypc, 2 TD), it seems unlikely that Notre Dame will be able to run at will on these guys.

With that said, Chip Long and his group HAVE to find a way to at least present a credible threat on the ground, picking up some yardage with Jones Jr. or Book or whoever else can get time in the backfield, just so they are a little less one-dimensional than they were against Georgia. The offensive line’s improvement will be key here, as that group has not been great and needs to do a better job of opening up running lanes and moving guys off the ball.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Virginia’s front seven will do everything in their very talented power to shut that down, with guys like Zandier, Mack, Snowden, Matt Gahm (15 tackles), Rob Snyder (13 tackles), DT Jowon Briggs (8 tackles), and others working to get a strong push, fill the gaps, and make sure Jones Jr. doesn’t have much daylight with which to work.

Overall, I think this will be a tough match-up for the Irish, but I also don’t believe Virginia’s defense is as good as Georgia’s was last weekend, and their stats are propped up just a bit from playing Pitt, William & Mary, FSU, and Old Dominion so far.

Look for the Irish to have plenty of struggles with the pass rush and potentially some turnovers, but to overall have so much talent at receiver that they will still manage to score a few touchdowns and win this thing (even if it will end up closer than some of us might like).

Defensive Cavalier to Watch

LB Jordan Mack

The guy is a menace rushing the passer, and if he can get pressure on Book and force him to abandon his reads and take off, it could mean another tough day for the ND offense. Mack’s ability to get to the QB will be HUGE in determining how easily the Irish move the ball down the field.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-South Carolina vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Irish to Watch

The Notre Dame Offensive Line

This group has not been very good, but NEEDS to be better tomorrow, both in protecting Book against a very aggressive and talented pass rush, but also in paving the way for at least the tiniest semblance of a running game, to ensure there’s more balance and thus a more effective offense for the Irish than there was last weekend. These guys are big and talented, and it’s time they started showing the same production that past ND offensive lines under Kelly have been able to display.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams???

Virginia’s special teams overall are nothing to write home about, as they’re 53rd in ESPN’s efficiency metrics and 51st in SP+. PK Brian Delaney is solid but not perfect, as he’s 16-of-17 on extra points and 5-of-8 on field goals in 2019. Punter Nash Griffin is pretty meh as well, averaging 40.7 yards per punt.

However, what is NOT mediocre about the Hoos’ special teams is return man Joe Reed, who is tied for first in the country with 37.8 yards per return in 2019, and 5th in the nation in total kickoff return yards. He’s already run one back for a TD this season, and for his career he has returned 4 kickoffs for touchdowns. Making sure he doesn’t break loose to shift all momentum to Virginia with a big return will be CRITICAL for ND’s kickoff team.

On the Irish side of things, special teams has been surprisingly efficient and productive so far this year. Notre Dame is 13th in the country in ESPN’s special teams efficiency rating, and 4th according to SP+. PK Jonathan Doerer hasn’t missed a kick yet this year, knocking down 14-of-14 extra points to go with the two field goals he’s made. Meanwhile, true freshman punter Jay Bramblett has been extremely reliable (knock on wood), averaging 42 yards per punt with a long boot of 58 yards.

Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One

Notre Dame 27, Virginia 17

Virginia has a very good defense, along with some play-makers on offense and a potential game-changer on special teams. That combination is good enough to make any reasonable Notre Dame fan worried, especially coming off such a hyped-up, emotional game last Saturday night.

However, the Irish are at home, will get another key offensive piece back, and will be playing with a renewed focus, anger, and something to prove after once again failing to beat the best opponent on their schedule. I think they end up winning this by two scores and send a message to everyone that they plan on running the table and contending for one of the final playoff spots.