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Notre Dame Football: Three Things We Learned Against Virginia

Cruisin’ through Hoo-ville

Notre Dame v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish went to Charlottesville for the second time and emerged victorious over the Virginia Cavaliers once again, this time in far less dramatic fashion. This game was expected to be competitive if Brennan Armstrong played, but he didn’t - and it wasn’t. The Irish cruised to a 28-3 victory that could have been even more emphatic but for a few Irish mistakes, as well as a clear strategy on the part of the coaching staff to rest to some key contributors. With the Irish at 9-1 with a pair of teams with losing records on the schedule to close out the season, let’s take a look at three storylines from this game to follow looking ahead.

Defense: Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

While Armstrong’s absence undeniably made things easier for the Irish defense, Marcus Freeman’s unit had to overcome some attrition of its own. The Irish were down a captain at every level of the defense due to Kyle Hamilton’s injury and Drew White and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s bouts with the flu. With rotational players forced into lead roles all over the field and UVA fielding a dangerous group of playmaking skill players, this still could have turned into a track meet even with Armstrong on the bench.

Notre Dame v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Instead, the Irish showcased a deep and talented bench and absolutely dominated the Hoos. Poor Jay Woolfolk spent much of the evening on the turf as the Irish racked up seven sacks, ending up with a miserable 28.6 QBR; the running game, meanwhile, failed to reach 100 yards. Out of Virginia vaunted receiving corps, only Keytaon Thompson (9 receptions, 110 yards) did any real damage, and the longest play of the night went for 28 yards - a huge win for a defense that has been vulnerable to big plays.

Bo Bauer stepped into the spotlight, pacing the Irish in tackles and getting a sack and a half, but even more impressive was the sheer number of less-frequent contributors who had solid performances. Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts, deployed at safety in new packages to absorb the loss of Hamilton, each tallied several tackles while Henderson snagged an interception. Rylie Mills and Justin Ademilola lived in the Cavaliers’ backfield, with 2 and 1.5 sacks respectively. At all levels of the defense, rotational players were stepping up and making impacts - credit them for not being afraid of the moment, and Freeman for putting them in a position to succeed.

Big-Time Runners, Today and Tomorrow

Virginia has a tackling problem, and that combined with Kyren Williams being on the field made for some moments of sheer comedy on Saturday night as defender after defender lunged in vain in his direction. Even in a relatively quiet performance (14 carries, 70 yards), Williams had some moments of pure magic, moving the chains and getting into the end zone while breaking tackle after tackle. It can’t be said enough: watching this guy play is a privilege. He’s probably only here for a few more games - cherish it.

Irish fans’ concern over the Bellyman’s impending departure should, however, have been eased by watching Logan Diggs jump - pardon the pun - onto the radar once again in this game, with a glorious hurdle on a 26-yard gain punctuating another solid effort. What was so great about that run, besides the hurdle itself, was that it showed Diggs’ complete skillset: strength to break tackles, speed down the sideline, and incredible athleticism. That’s an RB1, and Irish fans should be excited to see Diggs step into to that role in the near future

Notre Dame v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Getting in Sync

One of the frustrating things about this offense early in the season was how out-of-sync everyone seemed to be. No doubt the young offensive line’s growing pains were a huge part of that, but it was also apparent that players were simply not on the same page. Great athletes would be in a position to make plays and simply not execute - open receivers would be overthrown, accurate balls would be met by soul-crushing drops, simple pressures would not be picked up, etc. The enormous physical advantages Notre Dame enjoyed over most of its opponents were limited by a lack of execution.

Notre Dame v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

While things were still not perfect on Saturday - an uncharacteristic interception by Jack Coan, a fumbled exchange between Diggs and Tyler Buchner, a stalled first drive on a fourth-down conversion - the team has clearly made major strides in this regard. Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy caught passes they dropped early in the year. Coan moved or threw to avoid pressure rather than stepping right into it (there were no sacks on Saturday!). The offensive line continued its solid play and has clearly gelled as a unit. The result was an offense that was able to take control of the game and blow out its opponent without even having to produce very much (no skill player topped 100 yards, rushing or receiving) because it was executing at a far higher level than it was early in the season.

The Irish have two more games against weaker competition to continue honing their craft before a (likely) New Year’s Six bowl or (not impossible) playoff appearance in the postseason will force them to bring that execution to another level. For now, Irish fans can enjoy watching a very good team - good enough that it can still win convincingly when it doesn’t play its best.