The Notre Dame football schedule sees the Irish end the first month of action with a home game against the Virginia Cavaliers. Since the arrival of Bronco Mendenhall in 2016, the fortunes of the Cavaliers have slowly ticked upward, with consecutive bowl appearances one indication of that assessment.
Last season, Virginia put together their first winning season since 2011 and bounced back from a November slide to shut out South Carolina come bowl time. That slide wasn’t necessarily a decline in the level of the Cavaliers’ play, but simply bad luck with two consecutive overtime defeats to close out the regular season.
Virginia Offense: Air Apparent
With their top runner now out of the picture, Virginia is likely to focus on enhancing their passing game. Last season, Bryce Perkins arrived on the scene and promptly showed that he can be dangerous behind center. Throwing for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns, he certainly showed enough poise to limit himself to just nine interceptions on the year. He also displayed plenty of mobility to reach the end zone nine times on the ground and collected 923 rushing yards.
That focus on the air attack is because outside of Perkins, the returning backs offer an extremely thin resume led by PK Kier, who gained just 80 yards on 26 carries. Another possibility is the untested Wayne Taulapapa, but regardless of what transpires in training camp, it’s clear that keeping an eagle eye on Perkins is the key to controlling Virginia’s running game.
Among the receiving corps are the top two returnees in Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed. Dubois is more of a possession receiver and is coming off a season in which he snagged 52 passes and scored five touchdowns. Reed is a deep threat, though he only managed 25 catches, seven of those resulting in touchdowns.
Notre Dame’s pass rush in this game may be a key, since the Cavaliers’ offensive line is currently a work in progress. Three departures up front mean that plenty of young, but raw talent will be tasked with keeping Perkins upright. The main contenders in this area are a pair of tackles in junior Chris Glaser and sophomore Ryan Nelson.
Virginia Defense: Concerns Up Front
Last season, the Cavaliers finished 21st in the country when it came to scoring defense and has plenty of those same people back to possibly make life difficult for the Irish. The fact that Mendenhall has established himself as a strong defensive coach is a sign that putting points on the board will remain difficult for Virginia’s opponents.
Yet the defensive line is the weakest part of this unit, with no standout in the mix. What pass rush exists stems from the linebackers, but defensive tackle Eli Hanback figures to see plenty of playing time up front. Last year, he finished with 47 tackles, including 3.5 tackles-for-loss and a pair of sacks.
At outside linebacker, 6-foot-7 Charles Snowden is a budding talent, finishing last year with 62 tackles and 7.5 tackles-for-loss. He used that height to knock down eight passes, while picking off a pair. On the inside, Jordan Mack brought down 66 ball carriers last year, best among the Cavalier returnees. He should be helped by Robert snyder and Zane Zandier, who combined for 114 tackles last season.
The Virginia secondary is losing two plays, but got some welcome news when Bryce Hall returned for one more season. He’s hoping for a repeat of 2018, when he collected 62 tackles, two interceptions and forced a pair of fumbles. He was also a menace in knocking the ball, picking up 21 pass deflections.
Virginia Special Teams: Stability Reigns
After early drama in the kicking spot last season, Virginia fans will enter the 2019 campaign having the reassurance that junior Brian Delaney will be handling these duties. Delaney delivered in the clutch in an upset of Miami to start his success and showed off a strong leg that also makes him the punter.
The return game has Joe Reed back returning kicks after averaging over 27 yards per runback, which included taking one to the house. For punts, either Tavares Kelly or Chuck Davis will handle the job.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Virginia
Both previous matchups between these two schools on the Notre Dame football schedule have been played on the road. Their last time was in Charlottesville early in 2015. The final score saw the Irish win 34-27, but lose quarterback Malik Zaire for the season with a broken ankle.
That misfortune ultimately led to Deshone Kizer’s game-winning comeback on the Irish’s final drive after having blown a 26-14 advantage. The crucial play on the final drive was a fourth down conversion at the Irish 28, with Will Fuller’s 39-yard grab the game-winner.