There may be bigger games this season for the Virginia Cavaliers. There will almost definitely be bigger games in the seasons to come. But for many Wahoo fans, this is the game they’ve been looking forward to. This is the game where this team is tested against the nation’s elite.
Regardless of your feelings on the Irish, Notre Dame is college football royalty. They were a playoff team last year, and they’ve won 13 national titles. Virginia and Notre Dame have faced twice and Notre Dame has come out on top both times. The first was 1989 and the second was 2015. In that 2015 game, Virginia led late, but a 40 yard TD with 12 seconds remaining gave the Irish the win.
Notre Dame is coming off their first loss of the season, 23-17 to Georgia. The Irish actually led at halftime and got the ball back at midfield with two minutes remaining and a chance to win.
The Hoos, of course, are undefeated and coming off a poor performance in a win over ODU. The Hoos clearly overlooked the Monarchs and were lucky to come out with a win. Another performance like that will turn into a Notre Dame blowout.
Virginia on Defense
Notre Dame’s offense revolves around do-everything QB Ian Book. He has passed or rushed for 10 of the Irish’s 15 TDs this year. He is completing 62% of his passes for 828 yards, eight TDs, and two INTs. In addition to that, he’s rushed 26 times for 145 yards and two TDs. Those numbers are awfully similar to what Bryce Perkins has done for Virginia.
Here’s a look at Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage this season.
Louisville has good coverage deep, and Book takes off up the middle for a 37 yard gain. Looks a lot like Perkins, doesn’t it?
In truth, they aren’t really all that similar. Book is a much more accomplished passer and is more likely to use his legs to make a play with his arm while Perkins is more likely to break contain and take off running. Book is more dangerous when he does run, however. Last year, Perkins rushed 212 times for 923 yards. Book rushed 95 times for 393 yards.
That is part of the Irish’s game plan as a pass first team. Through three games, they have 97 pass attempts and 94 rush attempts, which is obviously very balanced. However, first two games were blowouts where they ran late to run clock. But last week against Georgia, the Irish had 47 pass attempts compared to just 14 rush attempts.
This is what Book can do. That’s single coverage and the Georgia DB gets beat. Virginia plays Bryce Hall in single coverage a lot, but he’s got a mismatch against ND’s top WR Chase Claypool. At almost 6’5, 230, he’s almost like a TE.
Speaking of TEs, Notre Dame has an outstanding one. Cole Kmet, 6’5, 250, had nine receptions last week for 108 yards and a TD.
Book makes this play happen by buying time with his feet and staying calm in the pocket. Also, the Notre Dame OL keeps Georgia’s DL out of the backfield for several seconds, giving Book time to scan the end zone.
The OL is a strength for the Irish. It’s a big unit, averaging 308 pounds. It’s also an experienced unit, with three seniors and a total of 55 starts coming in. The only underclassman is C Jarrett Patterson, and he was a top recruit (at tackle) last year. We’ve seen outstanding play from Virginia’s front seven (or six) this year, and it’ll have to continue if Virginia has a chance this week.
Book’s ability to pick up yards with his feet on busted pass plays is concerning for a Virginia defense that saw Pitt’s Kenny Pickett beat them several times for big third down conversions in the season opener. Getting the Irish offense off the field on third down is important.
It’s confusing to separate rushing and passing defense numbers in college football because sacks count as rush yards. The Hoos rank 12th in rush defense and 34th in pass defense. But the rush defense includes the 20 sacks for 117 yards lost. In reality, both the rush and pass defenses have been outstanding. But they’ve also been beat for some big plays. Here’s an example.
Virginia brings both inside LBs in the 2-4-5 defense, and that leaves nobody to pick up RB Matt Geiger. We also saw a back not get picked up against Pitt, which led to their first TD. Those types of plays can’t happen against a team as talented as Notre Dame.
This Virginia defense is legit, but might not be better than Georgia’s. The Bulldogs, after all, are #3 in the nation for a reason. The Irish had just 321 yards against Georgia, but that came in Athens.
One ND TD came after a muffed punt at the eight yard line. Other than that, Notre Dame had two scoring drives, 66 and 75 yards. The only two other drives that included more than one first down ended with turnovers.
Turnovers are going to be key. If Virginia’s defense can come up with a couple of TOs, they’ll have a shot. That’s especially true if they can give the offense a short field, because (as we’ll see below), Virginia may have trouble moving the ball.
Virginia on Offense
Last week was aberration for the Virginia offense. It had to be. Just 244 total yards against ODU. No disrespect to ODU, but they aren’t exactly the ‘85 Bears. ODU’s defense had a very strong game plan and executed very well, but Virginia simply has to be better than that.
ODU keyed on keeping Perkins from getting going on runs outside the pocket. They tried to force the ball to the RB on the zone-read and they had quality LBs who could stop those runs before they got going. They basically dared Perkins to beat them with his arm, and it very nearly worked.
It helped that the Virginia OL simply did not show up. Starting C Olu Oluwatimi was hurt and did not start (though he did get in at G later in the game). And the OL seemed out of sorts without him. ODU was in the backfield all game. Here’s an example.
Look how many Monarch defenders are in the backfield when PK Pier gets the ball. That’s entirely on the OL. They’ll need to be better against Notre Dame.
But it wasn’t just the OL. The game plan seemed to take ODU’s defense for granted. Here’s another play where ODU was in the backfield too quickly.
It looks like Tanner Cowley is tasked with blocking ODU’s Keion White one-on-one. White is ODU’s best pass rusher and has NFL potential. That is not a recipe for success.
The Irish have several pass rushers with NFL potential, led by possible first round pick Julian Okwara. He’s their best pass rusher and led the team with eight sacks a year ago. He doesn’t have a sack through three games, and in fact the Irish have just four as a team. That’s not to say they won’t bring pressure.
Here they bring six and Georgia’s Jake Fromm is able to get away and throw the ball away. Perkins is much more mobile than Fromm and it looks like there’s a lot of green ahead of him. Perkins would like tuck the ball and run in this situation. The Irish are certainly aware of Perkins’s ability, and may not bring pressure much.
Although the Irish haven’t had much pass rush this year, they do rank 16th nationally in tackles for loss (Virginia is fifth). Some of the lack of sack numbers comes from their matchups. They’ve played three teams that like to run the ball. They’ve faced 126 rush attempts and just 83 pass attempts.
Through four games, Virginia has thrown 134 passes and rushed 129 times. Considering several of those runs are Byrce Perkins scrambles, there’s been an imbalance in favor of the pass so far this year. That’s because the Hoos simply can’t run the ball. They rank 94th in run defense and 76th in yards per carry (4.1). If Virginia has chance in this game, they’ll have to run the ball.
Still, the game plan isn’t going to change much. This offense lives and dies by Bryce Perkins. He’ll get a lot of RPI and read-option, something Louisville had a great deal of success with.
The Irish play, in essence, a 4-2-5 defense. The extra DB is a “ROVER”, a hybrid LB/S. Virginia has seen several teams play a similar scheme over the past couple of years, so it’ll be nothing new. The Irish DL is led by DEs Okwara and Khalid Kareem, both of whom are outstanding. But the DTs are inexperienced. The two LBs, Asmir Bilal and Drew White, are as well.
If the interior of Virginia’s OL gets their act together, the Hoos could have some success up the middle. This has actually been where Virginia has had the most success running the ball. All five of Wayne Taulapapa’s TDs have come between the tackles. That’s his strength and he could be a factor in this game, especially in short yardage.
The Irish play a lot of man defense on the outside, usually with help deep. Here’s an example.
This is exactly the type of play Virginia loves to run, especially with Hasise Dubois.
The Irish CBs aren’t particularly big, nor particularly experienced. Virginia’s top WRs have been tremendous this year, with Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois and Terrell Jana combining for 60% of the team’s receptions. They all have size advantages on the Irish CBs, so Perkins needs to find them when he gets that single coverage.
One way that teams have hurt the Irish with the pass is on throws to the edge, especially back-shoulder throws.
We haven’t seen much of that from Bryce Perkins, but it’s definitely something to look for this week. The plays we have seen, the quick passes to Joe Reed, look a lot like this.
Georgia had some success with these throws, and Virginia could as well. Even though the OL can’t block, Virginia’s position players have been outstanding blocking on the edges this season.
Obviously, Virginia did not play well offensively last week. But they were pretty good in the second half against FSU and Pitt. In other words, they’ve got potential. It all comes down to the OL. If they play like they did last week, Virginia might get shut out. Notre Dame’s defense is better than anything Virginia has faced this season.
If this game was in Charlottesville, I’d be more inclined to pick the Hoos. After all, a much less talented Wahoo team nearly pulled off the upset last time out. And it is possible that Notre Dame is still reeling after last week’s tough loss.
However, much like Virginia last week against ODU, the talent edge and home field advantage should be enough to get even a less than perfect Notre Dame team over the hump.
Bronco Mendenhall and Virginia have made tremendous strides and are on the precipice of being a very good football team that can contend with national powers. But they simply aren’t ready for Notre Dame and that environment.
Prediction: Irish 24, Virginia 14 (season record: 4-0)