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BEHIND ENEMY LINES: Q&A with One Foot Down

We catch up with our Notre Dame sister site for the skinny on Saturday’s game.

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

As you know, the No. 18 Virginia Cavaliers are facing a huge test this weekend as they hit the road and play at No. 10 Notre Dame. It is a huge opportunity for the Cavaliers to do something they’ve never done in 27 tries — knock off a top 10 ranked team on the road — but it won’t be easy. In order to get the insider info on the Irish, we chatted with Pat Sullivan from our friends over at One Foot Down.

Check out our responses to their questions — including one about a hypothetical karaoke battle between coaches Kelly and Mendenhall — here.

Streaking the Lawn: Notre Dame hung with Georgia last week, but weren’t able to pull off the upset. What was ND’s biggest downfall in the game that kept them from the win?

One Foot Down: It really came down to the Irish offense’s inability to put together a balanced attack (or really much of an attack for most of the game). Notre Dame has done a poor job of recruiting at the running back position, and so with RB1 Jafar Armstrong currently out until probably USC weekend and sophomore Jahmir Smith sitting out the past two games with a toe injury, the ND running game has essentially been Tony Jones Jr. doing everything.

Jones Jr. is a good back and would be the perfect complement of a #2 back to Armstrong’s #1, explosive qualities, but as the only guy trusted to run the ball against a fast, athletic defense like Georgia’s, it really limited what the running game could do and turned the Irish into a super pass-heavy squad.

Even more important than a lack of top-flight running back talent, though, is that the ND offensive line has not been overly impressive through the first three games. They’re horrible in short yardage and were not effective at all against Georgia, leading to Brian Kelly and Chip Long once again abandoning the running game in hopes that Ian Book can dink and dunk the team down the field with short-to-medium passes. Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn has been good on the recruiting trail, but hasn’t come close to former coach Harry Hiestand yet in terms of developing the guys up front -- even with a #1 RB out, the lack of production on the ground was disgusting.

Combine the lack of running back talent with weak offensive line play, and it’s no wonder the Irish struggled last Saturday -- especially with some questionable play-calling (a flea flicker that was an INT) and tons of mental mistakes thrown in (false starts, 5th-year senior captain Chris Finke dropping a few passes). I mean, seriously, why would a flea flicker be expected to work against a Georgia defense when the Irish ran for a total of 46 yards on the evening? Why would the Bulldogs EVER be fooled on that? So, to summarize the above a bit, the Irish lost because their offense was pretty bad and very one-dimensional on Saturday in Athens.

To break it down into drives, ND had 11 offensive drives in this game, with 4 ending in punts, 4 ending in turnovers (2 INT, 2 on downs), and only one drive of 70 yards or more. 9 of the 11 drives were 30 yards or fewer. And one of the touchdowns the offense scored was after being gifted a muffed punt by UGA in the 2nd quarter. Add in lots of penalties and 46 total rushing yards and it’s honestly a bit of a miracle the Irish had a chance to win in the final minutes -- all the credit for that needs to be showered on the ND defense for hanging in there, getting some key stops, and refusing to let an elite running game bowl them over, despite how much time they had to spend on the field.

Chip Long and his crew have a lot to figure out for the rest of the season, as there will still be some good defenses like Virginia’s that could really cause them to struggle if they don’t turn it around. Saturday should tell us a lot about how Long and his offense can respond to their mess of a performance on Saturday.

STL: The rushing game was a little, umm, lean against Georgia. Virginia’s defense is 18th in SP+ (UGA is 10), and the Hoos are holding opponents to 2.2 yards per attempt. How big of an impact do you think the run will have in this game?

OFD: I think after last weekend, Kelly and Long will try a little harder to establish the run, especially if Jahmir Smith is back. But with Jafar Armstrong still out, I can easily see ND still relying HEAVILY on the passing game to move the ball (using screens and quick throws as quasi-runs on early downs), and attacking the Virginia pass defense, which is still pretty damn good at 34th in the country in yards allowed per game and 43rd in yards per attempt, but at least is a little more likely to crack against some very good ND receivers like Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet (especially considering Virginia hasn’t seen offensive talent like them in any of their first four games).

I believe Kelly and Long need to find a way to establish a decent running threat against good defenses like Georgia or Virginia if they want this team to win out, but I’m not confident they’ll actually do it until later in the year when Armstrong is back and the schedule softens a bit.

STL: Staying with the ND offense/Virginia defense, the Cavaliers have a strong secondary led by All-American Bryce Hall. Who do we need to know about from a receiver standpoint that Ian Book might go to?

OFD: As I mentioned above, the two big names you need to know in terms of receiver are Chase Claypool (15 rec, 256 yds, 2 TD) and Cole Kmet, without a doubt. Those two guys are physical freaks (6’4” and 6’5”, respectively), upperclassmen, and were the only bright spots on the ND offense against Georgia. Kmet had 9 catches, 108 yards, and a touchdown in his debut after coming back from a broken collarbone last weekend, and Claypool reeled in 6 big receptions for 66 yards and the touchdown that got ND within 6 late in the 4th quarter.

Those two are big and move well for their size and are great targets for jump balls thanks to their length, leaping ability, and great hands, so Book will continue to look for them on 3rd downs and in the red zone -- Bryce Hall and the UVA defense will definitely need to key on Claypool and Kmet on Saturday.

Other names to know:

  • Shifty, reliable receivers Chris Finke and Lawrence Keys III
  • Athletic sophomore TE Tommy Tremble helping stretch the field vertically
  • The return of would-be-starting WR Michael Young this weekend from a broken collarbone (if you couldn’t guess, we really don’t like collarbones this year)
  • Senior Javon McKinley, who was considered a bit of a bust before this year but turned in some big plays two weeks ago
  • Braden Lenzy, an absolute burner who, if healthy, is definitely someone ND might send deep once or twice to stretch the defense

STL: Bryce Perkins is the GUY for the Hoos offensively. How do you think the ND defense contains Perkins?

OFD: We’ve already seen a mobile QB give ND some trouble in Week 1 with Jawon Pass of Louisville, so honestly I do not think ND will be able to completely contain Perkins. He’s very good and very athletic and will be able to pick his spots, especially on passing downs, to scramble for good gains as the Irish get preoccupied with coverage and rushing around the edge.

With that said, how far the Irish linebackers have already come since that first game is ridiculous, as a group that was considered one of the weakest on the team was instead absolutely stellar in bottling up D’Andre Swift for less than 100 yards last weekend.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is the name to know there, as he’s the fastest and most athletic/aggressive of the Irish linebackers. Look for him to be flying all over the field and to be key in spying/running down Perkins in space. Asmar Bilal and Drew White are sure-tackling upperclassmen who will be asked to do some of that as well, so those three overall will certainly be tasked with keeping Perkins in check.

I also think, similar to the Georgia game, defensive coordinator Clark Lea will sell out a lot of his front seven to bottle up the run (and maybe occasionally have safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott provide aggressive run support as well), and trust his veteran secondary to take care of their business on the back half in coverage.

So, loading the box a bit and relying on the improved play of the linebackers will probably be the plan -- hopefully it’s enough to slow Perkins down for most of the game, and hopefully the Virginia receivers aren’t good enough to burn ND DBs too often in single coverage.

STL: Who is a player to know for the Irish, defensively?

OFD: I’ll give you one at each level, because I could never choose just one.

On the defensive line, it’s gotta be Julian Okwara. He’s been pretty quiet through three games, but is a potential 1st Round pick in this spring’s NFL Draft and is relentless in using his length and speed to run down QBs and force them into rushed decisions. He’s VERY due to have a big game in terms of sacks/QB hurries.

At linebacker, it’s definitely Owusu-Koramoah. He’s a fantastic athlete and will be all over the field on Saturday. His speed will be key to containing the UVA run game, and he’s just super fun to watch considering he had seen almost no real playing time until this year.

In the secondary, I’m going with Alohi Gilman. He’s one of the best safeties in the country and plays with an attitude and a knack for making big plays -- don’t be surprised if he’s involved in a turnover or two somehow this weekend.

Bonus: true freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, who would absolutely be starting if not for the two senior starters ND already has at his position. He still plays a ton on this year’s defense, has already managed a pick-six and various broken-up passes in this early season, and you’ll probably see his 6’4” frame make a few plays tomorrow that just make you say “WOW” due to his freak athleticism. Get to know this guy, he’ll be an All-American in a couple years.

STL: Coming off the UGA loss, what do you think the mindset is for the Irish in a game that’s a big opportunity for Virginia on the road?

OFD: I think, at least in the beginning, ND will come out pretty pissed off. They know they didn’t play a very good offensive game last week, and still had a chance at the end to beat an elite Georgia team. With that opportunity squandered, you have to think they’ll come out mad. Khalid Kareem said as much in a post-game interview:

With a renewed focus on winning out and cleaning up some easy-to-fix mental mistakes from last Saturday, I think the Irish will play a solid, pretty clean game where more guys -- especially on offense -- step up and make some big plays as they take out some frustration from last week on the Hoos.

STL: Who would you like to get yelled at by less in terms of ND head coaches: Brian Kelly or Kevin Corrigan?

OFD: I don’t follow Notre Dame lacrosse SUPER closely, so mostly out of curiosity, I choose Kevin Corrigan.

I want to see what his yelling style is like, and whether it’s more helpful or entertaining than BK’s, which I already know and do not particularly enjoy or want to endure.

COLLEGE LACROSSE: APR 28 ACC Semifinal - Duke v Notre Dame Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

STL: Ok, who you got? How does this one go?

OFD: I’d be a little more worried about the Irish having an emotional letdown after the Georgia game if they had pulled off the upset or if this game were at UVA, but despite some struggles against a good Virginia defense -- especially their elite pass rush -- I think Notre Dame takes care of business at home and wins 27-17 on the back of a little more productive offensive effort and another stellar defensive performance that only allows a couple big plays from the Cavaliers throughout the afternoon.

Huge thanks to Pat and One Foot down for the insight! The game kicks off at 3:30pm on NBC