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A Season Defining Game – Virginia vs. Notre Dame Preview

“Our team will define who they are this week because they are coming off a game where they were disappointed in their performance and now they have a chance to do something about it […] a bounce back situation defines who you are.”  This is what Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had to say in regards to the upcoming matchup against the 18th ranked Virginia Cavaliers.  Coming off an emotional loss to Georgia last week, the Irish are looking to put together a well-rounded performance on Saturday and right the ship and continue the winning ways for the rest of the season.

Virginia, making their first ever appearance at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, enters the game in first place of the ACC Coastal division with a perfect 4-0 record.  Coming off wins against Pittsburgh, William and Mary, Florida State, and Old Dominion, the Cavaliers will face the most talented roster that they have come up against this weekend.  In his weekly press conference, Brian Kelly described Virginia as “aggressive, tough, and well coached”, going on to comment on their defense as being “schematically sound” and “able to cause a lot of havoc”.  Running a 3-4 defense and having a tremendous amount of depth on that side of the ball has allowed the Cavaliers to stay fresh throughout the game and is clearly illustrated in their sack totals – 20 sacks in four games, ranking first in the country.  This long, athletic, and experienced defense will have their hands full as quarterback Ian Book and the Irish look to continue to evolve their game plan and find success on Saturday.  

On the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame will see the return of wide receiver Michael Young who suffered a broken collar bone earlier in fall camp.  With tight end Cole Kmet coming off a stellar performance against Georgia and Young being inserted back into the lineup, the Irish passing game should continue to improve as these starters get worked back into the regular rotation.  Brian Kelly said of Kmet that he “should come in with a lot of confidence this week” and will continue to be a focal point in the Irish passing game.  For Notre Dame to have success on this side of the ball, not only will they need to keep up with the rotation of the defensive line, but a special eye should be kept on senior linebacker Jordan Mack and junior linebacker Charles Snowden.  Both of these players are big, physical, and explosive and will undoubtedly draw the attention of Chip Long and the Irish offense.  I don’t expect Book to have to throw as much as he did against Georgia, but I do think that the addition of Michael Young back into the offense will allow for fifth-year senior wide receiver, Chris Finke, to be able to have more of an impact down the line.  Finke, with only seven receptions on the year so far, has proven to be a valuable asset especially in the slot, but has not had the initial production that Irish fans were hoping for at this point in the season.  Running back Jafar Armstrong remains out of the Irish lineup, but there is a possibility that Jahmir Smith will return, helping to distribute the load of carries to a back other than Tony Jones Jr. 

When it comes to stopping the Virginia offense, it will be essential for Notre Dame to contain a very mobile and very experienced senior quarterback, Bryce Perkins as well as one of his main targets, senior wide receiver Joe Reed.  Coach Kelly said “offensively, it all goes through Perkins.  He is explosive and extremely dangerous […] and gets the ball out quickly.”  Perkins is a dual threat quarterback who is very fast and has proven his ability to make plays happen with his feet.  Notre Dame has faced similar style quarterbacks against both Louisville and New Mexico, so it will be up to the defense to rise to the occasion again.  After facing a pocket passer in Fromm and Georgia last week, the Irish have shifted their focus again to being able to contain Perkins and Reed and to continue to cause havoc with the front seven.  The Cavaliers will come into this game with a good amount of questions at their offensive tackle positions, so I expect the Notre Dame defensive line to make their presence known early and often.  Outside of the line, wide out Joe Reed is not only one to keep an eye on in the Virginia passing game, but he is also an incredible kick returner.  Averaging nearly 40 yards per return this season alone, Reed holds the all-time Virginia record for career kick return yards.  The Irish defensive backs and special teams units will have their hands full as Reed will look to add to his totals on Saturday.

Notre Dame opened up as 11 point favorites for this weekend’s matchup against the Cavaliers and as Coach Kelly has stressed all week, the way the team responds after the loss at Georgia will tell us a lot about how the rest of the season will go.  After the captains called a player’s only meeting on Monday, I believe that the team will be focused and ready to execute come Saturday.  When asked about the meeting, captain Jalen Elliott said that the older players wanted to “just make sure that we moved on, using that 24 hour rule on Sunday and then forget about it and get ready for Virginia who’s a really good team and we’re going to have to come out and play hard against.”  I think this meeting set the tone by the veterans for the week of preparation and is a sign of good leadership.  Putting the loss in the rear view, a focused Irish team will look to cleanse their palates from the taste of defeat.  I think that this veteran lead team will come away with their third victory of the season.  I expect Virginia to keep it close throughout the first quarter, but once the Irish are able to find their rhythm, I predict that they will come out victorious with a 38-20 victory.  As it has been stressed, this will be a defining game for what to expect the rest of the season.  A motivated and well executed performance should put the Irish back on track for a strong remainder of the year.  Go Irish.  Beat Cavaliers.  

A look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Louisville: 2-2, lost to Florida State 35-24

New Mexico: 2-1, beat New Mexico State 55-52

Georgia: 4-0, currently ranked #3, beat Notre Dame 23-17

Virginia: 4-0, currently ranked #18, beat Old Dominion 28-17

Bowling Green: 1-3, lost to Kent State 62-20

USC: 3-1, currently ranked #21, beat Utah 30-23

Michigan: 2-1, currently ranked #20, lost to Wisconsin 35-14

Virginia Tech: 2-1, coming off a bye week

Duke: 2-1, coming off a bye week

Navy: 2-0, playing Thursday (9/26/19)

Boston College: 3-1, beat Rutgers 30-16

Stanford: 1-3, lost to Oregon 21-6