Notre Dame (8-1) visits the State of Virginia for the second time this season as the Fighting Irish battle the Virginia Cavaliers (6-3) on Saturday. The Cavs boast a potent attack that has scored at least 48 points in its last three games. They are the seventh team Notre Dame will have faced this season that did not play the week prior. ABC will televise this contest beginning at 7:30 PM Eastern time.
The ninth-ranked Irish are looking to keep their slim playoff hopes alive by winning their last three games, admittedly against unranked opponents that won’t qualify as marquee victories. The Cavaliers are clearly the best of this remaining group. As productive as their offense has been, however, the defense has been even more porous.
Virginia is coached by former BYU head man Bronco Mendenhall, who is in his sixth season in Charlottesville. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who has enjoyed a dream season from a statistical standpoint, leads the team in both rushing and passing. The bill for his outsized workload finally came due two weeks ago against BYU. Armstrong suffered rib fractures in that game and is listed as questionable for Notre Dame.
Mendenhall has been deliberately evasive in responding to questions regarding Armstrong’s ability to play this week. “I’m planning on him being our quarterback,” Mendenhall said on Monday, “Yeah, I probably won’t have an update until the ball is kicked off and we all look out there and see who our quarterback is.” If Armstrong cannot answer the bell, true freshman backup Jay Woolfolk will get the call.
Virginia has other injured players whose availability is not yet clear. Starting tailback Wayne Taulapapa and leading receiver Bill Kemp are both listed as questionable after departing the last game with injuries. Backup tailback Mike Hollins has missed the last three games and remains questionable as well.
Notre Dame is still in mourning over the loss of slot receiver and captain Avery Davis to a torn ACL last week against Navy. Freshman Lorenzo Styles will take his place with help from tailback Chris Tyree, who has lined up there in the past. Defensively, middle linebacker Drew White played well last week despite a partially torn PCL in his knee. White has practiced this week and is expected to play. As is usual, Bo Bauer will share the workload and take most of the snaps in obvious passing situations.
Coach Brian Kelly also reported that safety Kyle Hamilton is not medically cleared to return to action. Although Kelly insisted that Hamilton will play this season once he is cleared, I believe his status as a probable top five NFL draft pick renders this unlikely. An exception might be made for a playoff game but the injury to Davis certainly underscored the risk to Hamilton.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. VIRGINIA’S DEFENSE
The Cavs play a 3-3-5 alignment with a nickel back in the secondary. They will also insert a fourth linebacker and show a 3-4-4 look when expecting the run. The entire unit has plenty of size at all positions but they do not pressure the quarterback well or create havoc plays. I’m not sure if they are soft, slow, or simply not very good. Opponents have rushed for 219 yards per game. The pass defense is more respectable at 247 yards allowed, which is still not what anyone would call “good”.
Notre Dame should be able to create holes for Kyren Williams. Ball control and a balanced attack are important for the Irish in this game to keep the Cavalier offense on the sidelines. Williams should breeze past the 100-yard mark while freshman Logan Diggs is poised to make another significant contribution. I expected to see more of Tyler Buchner at quarterback against Navy and would be surprised again if he didn’t get more opportunities this week.
Virginia’s best players on defense are end Mando Alonso, linebackers Noah Taylor and Nick Jackson, and safety/rover Joey Blount. Any impact plays made by the Cavs will likely involve one or more of them. Blount and Nick Grant do a respectable job at safety while the cornerbacks can be exploited. Notre Dame’s Kevin Austin should have another strong performance and Styles will be fun to watch when he gets his hands on the ball.
The Cavaliers have forced a mere nine turnovers in their nine games while recording just 12 sacks. In their last outing, BYU torched them for over 700 yards and 66 points. Coach Mendenhall will hope that an extra week of rest will lead to a stronger performance on Saturday. Then again, maybe it won’t.
VIRGINIA’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The status of Armstrong is obviously a significant factor in this matchup. I expect he will start and remain on the field as long as he is physically able. It’s doubtful that he will call his own number very often in the running game unless forced to scramble. This affords an advantage to the Irish defensive line, who will smell blood in the pocket if Armstrong is not his usual mobile self. Note that Armstrong has more carries than Taulapapa (81-55), more positive yards (447-294) and more rushing touchdowns (7-2).
Still, there is plenty for Notre Dame to worry about. Armstrong averages 395 passing yards per game, has thrown for 300 or more yards eight times and 400 yards four times this season. He lit up North Carolina for 559 passing yards in a 59-39 loss. Another mind-blowing stat is that five receivers average more than 50 yards per game.
This group is led by Kemp, deep threat Dontayvion Wicks, and super-athlete Keytaon Thompson. A graduate transfer from Mississippi State, Thompson is listed on the Cavs depth chart as a Football Player (FBP). This is a tribute to his ability to play multiple positions including quarterback. Mendenhall deploys him as a Swiss Army Knife, which makes him very difficult to defend. Pro Football Focus rates the 6’4” 215-pound Thompson the most “elusive” player in the country based on various analytical data.
If Armstrong does not play or sees only part time duty, Woolfolk is the probable next man in. Woolfolk came on in relief of Armstrong at BYU after he went down. Don’t be surprised to see Thompson at quarterback as well, either as a passing threat or in a Wildcat type scheme. He was brought in during the offseason by Mendenhall to play the position but an injury to his throwing shoulder this spring altered those plans. As it turned out, Virginia’s attack is much more productive in its current configuration.
The players are confident in the offense no matter who is at quarterback. “The confidence is very high actually, Jay (Woolfolk) and all the other quarterbacks, right now they’re doing a really good job of handling what they’ve been dealt with and as an offense we’re really high right now,” senior tight end Jelani Woods said, “There’s no stoppage anywhere and we’re flying.”
Woods and the wide receivers will flood the Irish secondary and hope the quarterback will have time to find them. The third and fourth cover men for Notre Dame have been a liability in recent weeks, so there will be favorable matchups for the Cavs to attack. Safeties DJ Brown and Houston Griffith have also been inconsistent at the back end, although Brown has noticeably improved of late.
The job for Notre Dame is to take away the running game and force Armstrong or his replacement to become a pocket passer. Virginia’s huge offensive line has yielded 26 sacks despite starting five seniors. Right tackle Ryan Swoboda is 6’10” and 325 pounds. If the Irish front four can’t penetrate this group and apply pressure, Armstrong may forget about his sore ribs and light them up.
Virginia kicker Brendan Farrell took over the job mid-season when Justin Duenkel was injured. Farrell has been outstanding, hitting eight of nine field goal attempts with the lone miss coming at 50 yards. Duenkel was four of six with a long of 39 yards. Punter Jacob Finn, a grad transfer from Florida, is seldom used due to the success of the offense. Despite the long stretches on the bench he boasts a 46-yard average.
Kemp returns punts for the Cavs and is a legitimate threat to score. He and Hollins share the kickoff return duties. Since both are listed as questionable, don’t be surprised to see Thompson in either role.
Notre Dame continues to enjoy good performances by specialists Jonathan Doerer and Jay Bramblett. The return game has stalled of late but I’d like to see Virginia native Chris Tyree get green-lighted to return a kickoff or two. A little extra blocking with the intensity of the wall he enjoyed against Wisconsin would also be a welcome sight.
The Irish should avoid an aerial shootout with the Cavs if Armstrong is in the game. While receivers will be open for Coan, Williams is the best bet to get the ball into the end zone and play keep-away. When Virginia is on offense, the Irish will keep the ball in front of them to defend against the big play as they did with North Carolina. They will rely on the pass rush to create negative or empty plays and tighten up their coverages in the red zone. The Cavs convert on third down at a 48% rate. Notre Dame needs to do much better than this.
Even with the injuries noted above, Virginia has plenty of weapons to make this a close contest or even win if Armstrong is able to play without significant restrictions. Notre Dame cannot fritter away its own scoring chances with penalties or turnovers. Defensively, the Irish must not break containment on the edge up front or along the back end with missed tackles on the Cavs’ dangerous receivers.
Here are a few questions that will help determine the outcome:
Will Armstrong start and be able to make it through the entire evening?
Which offense will be balanced and gain a time of possession advantage?
Can the Irish defense succeed with a bend but don’t break game plan?
Will Notre Dame be able to contain Thompson wherever he lines up?
Which special teams will contribute impact plays?
Will the Irish secondary be able to cover five dangerous targets?
Which offense will make the most of its red zone chances?
Can Williams finally get some Heisman recognition?
My assumption has been that Armstrong will play and not be limited to a great extent. If he is unable to start or play through the pain, the Cavaliers have little chance to pull off an upset. Notre Dame does not roll into town very often, so I expect most of Virginia’s walking wounded to give it a go.
It could be that the Irish need 40 points to win this game. That’s okay because the Cav defense seems more than capable of surrendering at least that many. Meanwhile, the Irish even without Hamilton are good enough to register a few defensive stops and stay ahead on the scoreboard.
NOTRE DAME 41 VIRGINIA 31
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