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Virginia can’t afford a slow start against Notre Dame

Hoos have huge opportunity in South Bend on Saturday.

Old Dominion v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers are off to a hot 4-0 start on the 2019 season, something that hasn’t happened since 2004. There’s a lot to be pleased with as the Hoos have given themselves a head start on bowl eligibility and a 2-0 leg up in the ACC before they’ve even had a bye week. Virginia’s defense — ranked No. 18 in this week’s SP+ — leads the nation in sacks with 20 (tied with Florida), and has had stellar play in all three levels defensively. On the offense, Bryce Perkins has been electric and receivers like Joe Reed and Terrell Jana have been instrumental.

One thing Virginia hasn’t done well this season, however, is get off to hot starts. The Hoos have trailed all three FBS teams they’ve played this season at the half, including a 17-7 deficit to the Old Dominion Monarchs on Saturday.

It’s hard to get outrageously upset because, again, the Cavaliers are 4-0 with a win over Pitt that is getting more and more impressive each week and a win over Florida State, a team that has had Virginia’s number over the years. But as Virginia readies themselves for a top-10 opponent in the No. 10 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, it’s likely that a slow start could have a bigger impact on the game.

On the season, Virginia has “won” one of the four first halves played, but “won” all four of of the second halves. Here’s how the scoring has broken down by half so far:

Virginia Half Adjustments

Game First Half Score (UVA-Opponent) Second Half Score (UVA-Opponent) First Half Differential Second Half Differential
Game First Half Score (UVA-Opponent) Second Half Score (UVA-Opponent) First Half Differential Second Half Differential
@ Pittsburgh 13-14 17-0 -1 17
William & Mary 35-3 17-14 32 3
Florida State 10-14 21-10 -4 11
Old Dominion 7-17 21-0 -10 21
Season 65-48 76-24 17 52
Season vs FBS 30-45 59-10 -15 49

Virginia’s domination of FCS William & Mary skews the overall numbers, but there’s a lot to look at here.

Twice this season — against Pitt and Old Dominion — Virginia has held its opponent scoreless in the second half. The Hoos have scored at least 17 points in the second half in all four games this season, a mark that is more than they scored in three games last season (losses to Indiana and Pitt, win over Miami). Against Florida State and ODU, Virginia put up three touchdowns in the final 30 minutes of the game (all 21 points were in the fourth quarter against the Seminoles).

In looking at pass/run play selection through the first four games, Virginia has run more plays overall in the second half with more rush plays and fewer pass plays when compared to the first half. When you remove the stats for William & Mary — which was very run-heavy in the second half as the Hoos ran more clock with a lead — the result is the same, but with smaller margins.

Virginia Run/Pass Breakdown by Half

Game 1H Rush Attempts - Yds YPA 1H Attempts - Catches - Yds YPA YPC 2H Rush Attempts - Yds YPA 2H Attempts - Catches - Yds YPA YPC
Game 1H Rush Attempts - Yds YPA 1H Attempts - Catches - Yds YPA YPC 2H Rush Attempts - Yds YPA 2H Attempts - Catches - Yds YPA YPC
@ Pittsburgh 15 - 31 yards 2.1 17 - 11 - 120 yards 7.1 10.9 18 - 98 yards 5.4 17 - 9 - 61 yards 3.6 6.8
William & Mary 12 - 99 yards 8.3 19 - 13 - 159 yards 8.4 12.2 23 - 117 yards 5.1 17 - 12 - 136 yards 8 11.3
Florida State 18 - 70 yards 3.9 21 - 13 - 138 yards 6.6 10.6 14 - 50 yards 3.4 19 - 17 - 157 yards 8.3 9.2
Old Dominion 10 - 23 yards 2.3 12 - 7 - 43 yards 3.6 6.1 19 - 46 yards 2.4 12 - 8 - 132 yards 11 16.5
Season 55 - 223 yards 4.1 69 - 44 - 460 yards 6.7 10.5 74 - 311 yards 4.2 65 - 46 - 486 yards 7.5 10.6
Season (FBS) 43 - 124 yards 2.9 50 - 31 - 301 yards 6.02 9.7 51 - 194 yards 3.8 48 - 34 - 350 yards 7.3 10.3
YPA - Yards Per Attempt; YPC - Yards Per Catch

As expected, Virginia’s rushing totals are lean. Wayne Taulapapa has been solid with 153 yards on 39 carries. That gives him just under four yards per carry, which isn’t bad, to go with five touchdowns. He’s only averaging 50.7 yards per game, a huge drop off from what Jordan Ellis (78.9 yards per game) averaged last season. On top of that, QB Bryce Perkins isn’t doing as much with his legs.

Perkins this season is averaging 12.8 carries per game for an average of 48.3 yards and two total touchdowns. For the season in 2018, Perkins carried the ball 16.3 times per contest, averaging 71 yards per game. The decrease in yardage could be seen as a positive as the dynamic player is having to carry the ball less. The other side of it is that the offensive line is still dealing with some adjustments and not setting up the run as much as Virginia needs.

The passing game, however, has been effective with Virginia averaging just over 10 yards per catch on the season. Picking up a first down every time you make a catch (on average) is pretty good.

All of this will be in play on Saturday against the Irish. In the season opener against Louisville, Notre Dame struggled to contain the Cards’ QB, Puma Pass. Pass finished with 67 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The Notre Dame defense got to him four times, but, if not for three lost fumbles, Pass did a solid job keeping the Cardinals in the game (especially early).

While Virginia has done most of their damage in the second half, Notre Dame has scored more points in the first half (21 against Louisville, 10 against Georgia) than the second. Knowing the Cavalier coaching staff has been successful making halftime adjustments all season, if Virginia can get off to a quick start against the Irish, it could set them up for a major upset.

The game kicks off at 3:30 pm on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC.