Key Matchups: Notre Dame Defense Takes On Explosive Virginia Air Game

Irish offense looking to exploit weak Cavaliers defense. Irish defense faces nation's most prolific offense.

The Notre Dame football schedule continues with another trip to the state of Virginia. This time, the Irish will face the Virginia Cavaliers, who have won six of their nine games and have the luxury of being another opponent that’s coming off a bye week.

Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall is in his sixth season with Virginia, compiling a record of 36-34 after going 99-43 in 11 years at BYU. His offense appears to be running at peak efficiency by scoring over 38 points per game this year. However, his defense has been shredded on multiple occasions in 2021, which could mean that another wild scoring affair is on tap.

Below are some key matchups to watch:

QB Jack Coan vs. Virginia Defense

Coan had one of his strongest days against Navy, completing 23 of 29 for 269 yards and one touchdown. He may be able to put up even better numbers against Virginia, given their defensive struggles. His favorite target against the Mishipment was Kevin Austin and that figures to continue given the Avery Davis injury situation that further depletes the Irish receiving corps.

The Cavaliers have only lost three times this year, but in those defeats, the team’s defense has been virtually non-existent, They’ve allowed a total of 162 points in those contests and even victories over Miami (Fla.) and Louisville have been high-scoring shootouts. Given the fact that Virginia has been equally bad against the pass and run, Coan could keep things more conservative by focusing on the running game.

Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Brennan Armstrong

After being surprised by an early trick play, the Notre Dame defense suppressed any real upset threat by Navy. They gave up a season-low 184 yards in that matchup, but that won’t be the case in this game, considering the quarterback they’re facing. The Irish pass rush has been strong all season long and needs to be fully revved up to keep Virginia out of the end zone.

Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong is considered a game-time decision even though Bronco Mendenhall said on Monday he expects Armstrong to play. The Cavalier QB injured his ribs in UVA’s last outing against BYU which cast doubt on his availability for the Notre Dame game. Virginia has been very quiet on Armstrong’s status since he suffered the injury. Right now we don’t know if Mendenhall is just being vague for a strategic advantage or not. We do know that IF Armstrong plays (which could be a big IF), he’s one of the best in the country.

Armstrong is the focus of Virginia’s offense, averaging over 450 yards passing this season and ranking second on the team with 271 rushing yards. He’s even picked up a reception on the year and will be more than a handful for the Irish defense to contain. Presenting a different look to Notre Dame’s defenders as a southpaw, his willingness to go deep will keep the Irish secondary on their toes.

OTJosh Lugg/Joe Alt vs. OLB Noah Taylor

Facing another strong-side linebacker, Lugg and Alt will need to work in tandem to keep Taylor out of the Notre Dame backfield. The Irish offensive line has improved since a woeful first month and protecting Coan in this contest would undoubtedly allow him to exploit Virginia’s defensive weaknesses

Taylor stands 6-foot-5 and has the capability to either rush the quarterback or quickly drop back into coverage. He’s third in tackles for the Cavaliers this season with 56 and leads the team in stops behind the line of scrimmage. He’s also tied for the team lead in sacks with three and has managed to knock down four opposing passes. Still, he sometimes overruns plays and has been part of a Virginia defense that’s gotten pounded in the last two games.

CB Cam Hart vs. WR Dontayvion Wicks

Hart had a quiet day against Navy but that figures to change drastically on Saturday night. He’s got the size to handle himself and has decent enough speed. However, trying to defend against a player like Wicks will present a game-long challenge for a player whose big-play capability has been limited during his two seasons at Notre Dame.

When Virginia decides to go deep, Wicks figures to be the target. He’s third on the Cavaliers in receptions with 42 this year. However, he’s averaging 23.1 yards per catch in 2021 and has scored nine touchdowns. He sat out last year with a foot injury but is having a breakout year by using his excellent leaping ability while displaying a knack for making the tough catch.

RB Kyren Williams vs. LB Nick Jackson

Williams delivered another solid game for the Irish against Navy, combining 95 yards and two touchdown runs with a season-high seven receptions. He could have a big night against Virginia, which is allowing 5.7 per rushing carry. The boost he’s given the Irish offense over the last month could help lead the path to victory.

Jackson is expected to be the name heard most on Virginia’s defensive stops, considering that he leads the team with 86 tackles this season. He’s broken double-digits in the category four times in 2021, including a 16-tackle effort against BYU. He’s athletic enough to quickly get back into pass coverage, but simply stopping Williams may end up being his top job.

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