On November 13, the 2021 Notre Dame football schedule finds the Irish in Charlottesville, Virginia to face the Virginia Cavaliers. When they take the field, Notre Dame will be hoping to extend their trio of previous victories in this brief series and keep their record for the matchup spotless. Two of those three contests have come since Notre Dame’s entry into the ACC.
Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers are hoping to avoid the up-and-down season they had during the tumultuous 2020 campaign when they finished with a 5-5 mark. The Cavaliers began by dropping four of their first five games before roaring back to win four of their final five clashes, though the team passed up a potential bowl bid. Mendenhall is in his sixth year at Virginia and sports a 30-32 mark over that period. His best season was in 2019, when he led the Cavs to an Orange Bowl berth during a 9-5 season.
Virginia Offense: A Need for More Support
After two seasons of seeing minimal action, southpaw Brennan Armstrong took over behind center for the Cavaliers last year and threw for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 552 yards while scoring five times, but his 11 interceptions are one flaw that hopefully received some offseason fixing. Armstrong’s dual talents were on display in a loss last year at Clemson, when he threw for 270 yards and ran for 89 yards.
In addition to the need to limit such turnovers, expanding the Virginia running game is also a priority for any success this season. Two returnees from last year are Wayne Tualapapa, who had a second-best 395 yards on the ground and five scores and Ronnie Walker. Coming back after an opt-out year in 2020 is Mike Hollins, while the duo of Harvard graduate transfer Devin Darrington and Amaad Foston might an interesting pair to follow.
The receiving unit welcomes back leading receiver Billy Kemp, who had the odd combination of 67 catches but just one touchdown, However, big-play threat Lavell Davis figures to miss most of the season after suffering a torn ACL in spring ball, with the hope being that newcomer Artie Henry, a Marshall transfer, can fill the gap. At tight end, Oklahoma State transfer Jelani Woods could make a big impact on the field, in part because of his 6-foot-7 frame.
On the Cavaliers’ line, four of the five starters return and will be led by right guard Chris Glaser, who stands 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds. Joe Bissinger is expected to man the other guard slot, while the tackle positions are where Ryan Swoboda and Ryan Nelson need to thrive in order to keep Armstrong upright. The center will once again be Olu Oluwatimi.
Virginia Defense: Depth Problems
Youth could very well be served on the front line of the Cavaliers’ 3-4 defense, with two sophomores, nose tackle Jahmeer Carter and end Nusi Malani possibly joined by incoming freshman, Bryce Carter. However, returning ends Mandy Alonso and Adeeb Atariwa and nose tackle Aaron Faumui figure to put up a fight, with a need for a stronger pass defense evident.
The Virginia linebacking unit serves as a team strength, though lack of depth could come back to haunt them. Last year’s leading tackler, Nick Jackson, is back and is joined by Noah Taylor, who may get noticed by the NFL during his final year. Elliott Brown gives the team experience at one outside spot, though two potential standouts may pop up in Josh Ahern and T.C. Harrison. The key here is filling the holes left by the departures of Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier.
In the secondary, players like cornerback Nick Grant and strong safety De’Vante Cross could see challenges from a pair of transfers in Anthony Johnson and Josh Hayes. Cross could get shifted to safety if Darrius Bratton appears capable of handling the job, with the duo of Coen King and Antonio Clary also battling for playing time in this area.
Virginia Special Teams: Mostly New Faces
Replacements are in order at both punter and placekicker, with the two most likely candidates to grab those spots being Brendan Farrell and Justin Duenkel. After paying his time as a reserve, Farrell appears ready for his big shot, while Duenkel got a taste of some action last year on kickoffs.
The Last Time Notre Dame Faced Virginia
Two years ago, the Irish trailed the Cavaliers at the half, 17-14, before regrouping to outscore their visitors 21-3 after the break and collecting the 35-20 victory. On offense, Tony Jones helped lead the charge, finishing with 131 yards on the ground and scoring three times. The Notre Dame defense did their part by collecting eight sacks on the day, including three by Julian Okwara.