Responsible for eight sacks and one touchdown, the Irish defense lead the way over the Virginia Cavaliers this past weekend with a final score of 35-20. Although it wasn’t the most visually appealing first half, Notre Dame was able to come out with another victory, extending their win streak, and improving to 3-1 on the year. After jumping over Florida in this week’s AP top 25 poll, what did we learn about the Irish from their win over Virginia?
As coach Brian Kelly addressed immediately following the loss to Georgia, the game against Virginia would be a defining game for the Irish this season. Would they come out bruised and flat after an emotional loss or would they be focused enough to rise to the occasion against a top 20 opponent? In his post game press conference, Kelly said that Notre Dame came out “determined and persistent” and “didn’t panic” as the game went on. As Virginia has lead multiple second half comebacks already this season, the Irish knew this would not be an opponent who would fold under pressure just coming into Notre Dame Stadium and that showed as the Irish went into halftime down 17-14 and had absolutely no momentum.
This less than ideal first half score was indicative of how well the Virginia offense and how poorly the Irish offense played in the first half. Kelly said of the Cavaliers quarterback, Bryce Perkins, that he “played flawlessly in the first half” being able to have time in the pocket and make the throws where he wanted to put them. Perkins finished the game completing 30 of his 43 pass attempts for 334 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed both tallied nine receptions, Dubois finishing with 143 receiving yards and Reed adding another 107. The Cavaliers rushing attack finished on the opposite totaling four yards at the completion of the game. Granted, this was aided by the significant lost yardage from the eight sacks that the Irish defense totaled. I thought that Perkins looked extremely good in the first half as he was not only able to sit in the pocket and pick his receivers, but also use his feet to help extend plays.
The Irish offense reverted back to its former ways of getting off to a rather sputtering start. I felt like Ian Book was more of a game manager this weekend – not doing anything spectacular, but not putting the Irish in any tough situations either. Book finished the game completing 17 of his 25 pass attempts for 165 yards in the air. He was not responsible for a passing touchdown, but he also did not throw an interception either – again speaking to this “game manager” roll that he played. The Notre Dame rushing attacked finished with 178 yards, lead by Tony Jones Jr. with 131 yards and a career high three touchdowns, showing a very balanced offensive scheme from the Irish this week. I don’t think the sputtering offense should be cause for as much concern as people might make it out to be. Coming into the game, we knew that Virginia’s defense (much like Notre Dame’s) has been the backbone of the team. It was imperative that the Irish protected Book, similar to their protection against the Georgia defense, as Virginia had totaled 20 sacks in their first four games. As Kelly pointed out though, the Irish “need to be a little more efficient offensively”, and I think the upcoming game against Bowling Green could help in that department.
As has been the case for the past season or so, the Notre Dame coaching staff has been able to make great adjustments coming out of halftime and Saturday proved to be another instance of this. Coming out of the half down three points, Virginia recovered their onside kick and continued to add to their momentum out of the gate. On this possession, the Notre Dame defense was able to come up with another big stop; points here could have really swung the momentum in favor of Virginia and could have potentially steered the game to a completely different outcome. With Perkins playing so well in the first half, the Notre Dame defensive adjustments held Virginia to three total points in the second half, contained Reed and Dubois on the outside, and crushed Perkins in the pocket. Coming with with two defensive touchdowns in the 3rd quarter alone, the Irish defensive adjustments forced Perkins to throw the ball more and to get the ball out of his hands a lot quicker which ended up leading to more mistakes and adding to the Notre Dame point totals. This again speaks to Clark Lea’s coaching abilities and the halftime changes that the coaching staff is able to implement. Coach Kelly said that the Irish want to “continue to be a team that doesn’t give up big plays in the rushing game”, and the pressure and penetration that Notre Dame was able to get in the second half continues to backup that sentiment. Notre Dame proved again that they could contain a very mobile quarterback, but the defensive success came at a price. Defensive lineman Daelin Hayes suffered a torn labrum and looks to be out for the remainder of the season while cornerback Shaun Crawford dislocated his elbow and is projected out for at least the next three to four weeks. Both of these players have been key contributors on the Irish defense and was not what Irish fans wanted to see leaving the game.
With another win in the books, Notre Dame has jumped up one spot in this weeks AP top 25 poll, coming it at number 9. With each win, we are learning more about this team – both their strengths and weaknesses. As it is now Bowling Green week, Kelly and the Irish are stressing the idea of playing at a championship level no matter who the opponent is. The upcoming game should be a time for the Irish to work on fine tuning some details and get younger players more game reps. A respectable 15 point win over a top 20 opponent has been added to Notre Dame’s resume and we are on to the next one.