After three straight games in South Bend, Notre Dame is hitting the road to take on the Virginia Cavaliers. The Hoos have a high flying offense led by quarterback Brennan Armstrong and his 0.31 EPA/pass, giving Virginia the 7th best passing offense in the nation. However, he is questionable to play due to a rib injury sustained two weeks ago against BYU. If Armstrong is able to go it could be a true test for an Irish secondary that did not hold up well against Sam Howell. If he isn’t playing, the Irish seem primed to pick up their ninth win as they don’t have any proven or high level talent behind him. For more information on the statistics we use in these articles, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
Virginia sports one of the worst defenses in college football, ranking in the bottom ten against both the run and pass. While the Irish sport average rushing and passing EPA metrics on the season, they have come on as of late in both areas and have dominated against the weaker defenses they have faced in recent weeks. The pass game has recovered from a midseason slump against Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Virginia Tech, and the run game has steadily improved as the offensive line has gelled together and Kyren Williams has been on a tear. Virginia is catching this Notre Dame offense at the wrong time, and the Irish seem primed to put up points.
A large reason for this offensive awakening is Jack Coan is playing his best football of the season. Coan has a 91.6 Pro Football Focus grade over the last three weeks, ranking sixth in the country and blowing his 70.1 mark in Weeks 1-7 out of the water. Coan is finding his stride at the right time with the increased usage in play action and quick passing, which is impressive as the wide receiver group gets thinner.
After losing Joe Wilkins earlier this season, the Irish announced Avery Davis has a torn ACL and is done for the season. As leaders of the Avery Davis fan club this is borderline crippling news, but Lorenzo Styles is primed to take over in the slot. Small sample size warning, but Styles leads all skill players in EPA/Target, and 8 of the 11 passes thrown his way have resulted in positive EPA. While he has big shoes to fill, he looks ready for more trust in the offense and it will be good for the Irish to go into next season with at least one or two wide receivers who have actually played before.
Finally, keep it rolling Kyren Williams. After a season where the offensive line and play calling did not give him much of a chance to be great, Kyren has carved out a solid season for himself through individual excellence. Now that the offensive line is improving, the sky’s the limit for him in what are likely to be his final few games in a Notre Dame uniform, and he has an excellent chance against a run defense that gives up 0.27 EPA/Rush.
Virginia’s offense has been spectacular this season. They have the 7th ranked passing offense at 0.31 EPA/Pass, which includes a ludicrous 0.70 EPA/Pass on third down. Their rushing offense is 13th in the country at 0.20 EPA/Rush, but has been peaking as of late averaging around 0.50 EPA/Rush in their last 50 rushing plays. This is perhaps the best offense the Irish have encountered all season, and it centers on Brennan Armstrong.
Brennan Armstrong has put it all together in 2021. His EPA numbers are strong and he has a 91.4 Grade from Pro Football Focus, including an 80.8 rushing grade. With no Kyle Hamilton in the secondary and knowing what Armstrong is capable of, this could be a repeat of the UNC game where Jack Coan needs to be at his best to outscore the opponent. However, if Armstrong is out the Cavaliers will likely turn to Ira Armstead, a Redshirt Freshman from South Bend, Indiana whose only Power Five offer was from Virginia and was ranked 1,524 in the 247 Composite Recruiting Rankings. While we can’t be sure what Armstead brings to the table, it seems safe to say the Irish will be far more likely to win with Armstead under center than Armstrong.
The Cavaliers lean extremely heavily on their receivers in the passing game, with four Wide Receivers leading the team in targets. Dontayvion Wicks stands out as a problem for the Irish. A field stretcher averaging 15.49 Yards/Play and an aDOT of 19.9, Notre Dame will need to find a way to keep him in front as they continue to adjust to live without Kyle Hamilton.
Armstrong is the key to the running game. Starting running back Wayne Taulapapa is rushing at an above average 0.06 EPA/Rush, but Armstrong is far ahead of him at 0.44 EPA/Rush. There’s only so many ways to say the Cavaliers need Brennan Armstrong to win this game, but that’s a crucial portion of what kind of game we’re going to get tomorrow.
Jack’s Pick: I’m going to take Notre Dame to win and cover because there are the types of teams Brian Kelly handles business against. Ever since the program reset in 2017, I can remember a few instances of “sneaky teams” or “unranked teams better than their record” that Brian Kelly was able to control the game against, and I like that to happen this Saturday, especially if Armstrong is out.
Cooper’s Pick: This is a two-part pick. If Armstrong plays, I am taking Notre Dame to win but Virginia to cover. Virginia’s offense is so explosive and underrated that it will be very difficult to contain with a somewhat shaky secondary that doesn’t have Kyle Hamilton. I also have doubts in Notre Dame’s offense, specifically the playcalling, going pedal to the metal from the jump and being aggressive to gain a big, early lead. They shouldn’t have an issue scoring points given Virginia’s defense but we saw just last week how conservative playcalling can impact offensive output. But if Armstrong can’t go, Notre Dame should cover with relative ease. While we don’t have really any data on Armstead, his recruiting ranking should suggest he doesn’t have the capability right now to make up for one of the worst defenses in the country.