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The Big Football Preview: Notre Dame at Virginia

NCAA Football: Virginia at Brigham Young Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time this season, the Virginia Cavaliers accumulated nearly 600 yards of offense, and lost by three scores. In both of those games, Virginia fell behind early. Virginia’s offense is good enough to play catchup, but the defense hasn’t been good enough to keep the opposition in check for very long. This time, turnovers also hurt.

The Hoos now turn their attention to #7 Notre Dame in their final out of conference game of the season. The Irish are 8-1 and coming off a 34-6 win over Navy. The Midshipmen actually held a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but never got anything going offensively.

Virginia is coming off a much-needed bye week, following a tough loss on the road to BYU. Of course the big story is the availability of Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong. The nation’s total offense leader suffered broken ribs late against BYU and his status is unknown at this point.

When: Saturday, November 13, 7:30 Eastern
Where: Scott Stadium
TV: ABC
DraftKing Odds: Virginia is a 5.5 point underdog

Virginia on Defense

As mentioned, Notre Dame was scoreless for the first quarter by Navy. That’s not all that surprising, as the Irish have scored just 21 first-quarter points all season. The Irish rank just 68th in scoring this year, and 70th in total offense. The Irish season high yards is 523 yards, against the Tar Heels. That is well below Virginia’s season average. They’ve surpassed Virginia’s 39 points per game average just three times all season.

Offense is not the strength of the Irish. Wisconsin held them to just 242 total yards, but the Irish scored on special teams and twice on defense to blow out the Badgers 41-13.

This was the second play, and first pass play of the game for the Irish. The Badgers shut down the Irish by consistently getting pressure on the Notre Dame QBs. They had six sacks in the game, and several more hurries. That sack came against starting QB Jack Coan, a transfer from Wisconsin. Probably felt good for the Badger defenders to hit their old QB. That’s something you can’t do in practice.

This is an ongoing problem for the Irish, who rank 117th in the nation in sacks allowed. Virginia would do well to find ways to get into the backfield in this game, because that is the way to shut down this offense. To nobody’s surprise, that is not something Virginia has been good at this season. The Hoos rank 118th in sacks, averaging just over 1 per game. That’s...not good.

Although Coan has taken a majority of snaps this year, hot-shot freshman Tyler Buchner has also seen action. The most game action Buchner has seen came against the Hokies, and he was up and down. He completed under 50% of his passes and threw two INTs.

This is the best pass of Buchner’s young career and it led to his first rushing TD.

Buchner would later throw a short TD pass, becoming the first true freshman QB to throw and rush for a TD in one game for the Irish. Ever.

Virginia should figure on seeing Coan mostly. Buchner had just one pass attempt last week against Navy. He provides a running threat, which Coan doesn’t, but the real running threat comes from RB Kyrell Williams. He leads the team, and is 33rd in the nation, at just over 800 yards.

That’s some run. He has speed to go deep, but also vision and patience. Williams should be early draft pick this coming year.

Coan has been solid, if unspectacular for the Irish. He is 52nd in the nation with a 144 passing efficiency.

This is almost definitely Coan’s worst throw of the season. It’s a poor decision, but also well behind the intended target. That is his favorite target, TE Michael Mayer. Mayer missed a game, but still has 11 more grabs than anybody else. Incidentally, the second leading receiver is Kyrell Williams. The knock on Coan is that he’s a “game manager” and too willing to dump the ball off short. He ranks 78th in the nation in yards per completion. Buchner seems to be just the opposite. He averages 17 yards per completion, which would be among the nation’s leaders. (If you’re interested, Brennan Armstrong ranks 27th.

It’s not that Coan can’t sling it. And the Irish certainly do have talent at WR.

This is Kevin Austin, who leads the WRs with 31 receptions and averages 17 yards per reception. His compadre is Avery Davis, right behind him with 27 catches.

Davis is lined up in the slot here, something we’ll see a lot of. Davis is more of a possession guy, a bit like Billy Kemp, but bigger. This is Buchner again, waiting for Davis to clear the underneath defender and then throwing a dart.

The way Virginia has defended the run this year, it may not matter who Notre Dame plays at QB. BYU’s Tyler Allgeier averaged 9 yards per carry, and scored five TDs. Virginia will need to focus on slowing down Williams because if they can’t stop him, nothing else matters.

Virginia on Offense

There is one question for Virginia fans going into this game: “How is Brennan Armstrong?”

We’ve seen this year that Armstrong can be good at less than 100%. He suffered a knee injury, and didn’t run much for a few weeks. The Virginia offense was fine. In fact, the Virginia offense currently ranks number-one in the nation in total yards, a hair ahead of Ohio State. Did you ever think you’d see Virginia with the number one offense in the nation in November? I certainly didn’t.

If Armstrong doesn’t play, we’re going to see a lot of Jay Woolfolk, who has looked dynamic, but raw in limited action. He completed 2-5 for 35 yards in mop-up duty against BYU.

It won’t just be Woolfolk though. With no Armstrong, we’ll likely see all-hands-on-deck taking snaps. That means more direct runs from Keytaon Thompson. That’s a good thing, as Virginia’s “football player” averages 6.8 yards per carry. Thompson has been an enormous weapon for this team, something unforeseen. Thompson totaled 49 touches last season (passes, runs and receptions). He’s currently at 86 through nine games. Thompson had nine reception for 91 yards against BYU, but was relatively quiet.

The latest we’ve heard from Coach Mendenhall is that he is “planning on Armstrong being our QB”. That’s a good sign. Let’s assume that Armstrong is able to play. Notre Dame will certainly be preparing for Armstrong.

Notre Dame’s defense ranks 60th overall, 54th in rushing defense and 65th in passing defense. But, they’re also 26th in sacks, 34th in TFLs and 15th in turnovers forced and 28th in passing efficiency defense.

This is not a bend-but-don’t-break defense. It is very much an attacking, aggressive defense. They are running a fairly standard 4-3 defense, with playmakers all over. On the DL, Isaiah Foskey is tied for eighth nationally with nine sacks.

This is basically a complete breakdown by FSU’s OL. There is pressure immediately, which Jordan Travis is able to avoid. But Foskey comes in to clean up without ever being blocked. Notice that Foskey lines up out of a two-point stance on this play. This is almost like a 3-4 defense, with Foskey at OLB. Though he is listed at DL, he will be used in different ways. Foskey has 9 sacks, 10.5 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries and is second on the team in tackles.

In the secondary, the star is Kyle Hamilton, a projected top-ten pick in the NFL draft. Hamilton has missed two games, but still has three INTs, four pass breakups and 35 tackles. He’s excellent at playing “center-field” and reading QBs.

In this case, Notre Dame’s pressure forces Travis out of the pocket. He thinks he has a man open, but Hamilton has other ideas. It’s a shame we can’t see Hamilton for the entire play, because this is a tremendous read.

At LB, all they have is JT Bertrand, one of the nation’s leaders in tackles. Bertrand also got five TFLs and three QB hurries. There’s plenty of complementary talent as well.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten. Because they’re aggressive, they can give up big plays.

Because they are aggressive, there’s a lot of man coverage on the outside. One mis-step and it can go for a big play. This big play doesn’t end up in a TD, and the Irish held Toledo to a FG on the drive. Although they are 60th in total defense, they are 41st in scoring defense.

We have seen what Virginia’s WR can do to single coverage.

This is just one of the big plays we have seen from Dontayvion Wicks the past few games. Wicks is fourth in the nation in yards per catch and has more receptions than anybody else in the top ten. He’s getting better and better.

If the Irish decide to focus more on Wicks, that would take their talented safeties away from the middle of the field. They’re LBs are good, but Jelani Woods feasts on LBs.

That is talented BYU LB Jackson Kaufusi, who has two brothers playing in the NFL. He is three full yards behind Woods and has no chance on this play. Woods is also getting better and better.

Look, if Armstrong doesn’t play, or if the ribs impact his throwing ability, all bets are off. Notre Dame’s defense is talented, and aren’t likely to be beaten by a freshman QB, or by a bunch of gimmicky wildcat runs and such. Virginia needs Armstrong, and need him at his best. Hopefully, that’s the case.

Conclusion

Any predictions for this game come with a caveat. If Brennan Armstrong can’t go, or if he’s significantly diminished, the Hoos probably don’t have a shot. The Virginia offense, with Armstrong, is elite. Without Armstrong, it’s not.

Notre Dame has not really outplayed their opposition all that much. They’ve been outgained in six of their nine games. Prior to last week, the Irish had actually been outgained on the season. They’ve won with defense, special teams, and Kyrell Williams. Is that enough against Virginia’s dynamic offense? Can Virginia’s defense slow down Williams at all?

Prediction: Hoos 42, Irish 35 (season record 6-3)
(Prediction assumes Armstrong plays, and is at or near 100%. If he doesn’t or isn’t, Notre Dame wins easily.)