It's about to go down.
Wahoo fans everywhere have this game circled. It was circled as soon as the 2019 football schedule was released. The hype has reached a slow boil. And it's ready to transform into a full-blown frenzy.
The 18th ranked Hoos (4-0, 2-0) versus the 10th ranked Fighting Irish (2-1). 3:30 PM on NBC.
Virginia visits one of the true cathedrals of college football. The biggest challenge on the schedule. The biggest opportunity on the schedule as well.
Let's get it on.
For the second time this season, it's the blue-white-blue combination. This combo was worn in the season opening win at Pitt too.
Saturday's game marks Virginia football's first ever visit to South Bend, Indiana. It will be the third all-time meeting between the two programs.
This will be UVA's first game played at Notre Dame. The teams first met in the 1989 Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ— Winsipedia (@Winsipedia) September 24, 2019
Notre Dame has won both matchups against UVA, including their last matchup in 2015#GoHoos #GoIrish #UVAvsNDhttps://t.co/DEXCRJP0An pic.twitter.com/r0WvAAz3WS
The first game in 1989 was a 36 to 13 Notre Dame victory. The Irish, who were the defending national champions, outclassed a UVA team that would finish with a school record 10 wins that season.
The second game in the series, played at UVA in 2015 was a 34 to 27 Notre Dame win. This game is famous for the creation of the Sad Cavalier Fan meme when Notre Dame hit a long pass in the waning seconds of the game to put an end to UVA's upset bid.
Keys To Victory
Stay In Ian Book's Face
The 6-0 212 pound senior QB from California makes Notre Dame's offense go. He was already their most important player on offense but with a running game that's struggled all year, his importance has only increased.
Despite an offensive line that returned 4 of 5 starters from an offense that ranked 19th in offensive efficiency and 51st in rushing yards per game, Notre Dame is the bottom half rushing offense in FBS this season. Their 144.3 yards per game ranks 85th nationally. The Irish rushing attack is down nearly 40 yards per game from 2018.
Top running back option Jafar Armstrong is still nursing an injury sustained in the season opener against Louisville. And Ian Book is actually their second leading rusher on the season.
As a passer is where Book really excels. In 2018, his first seeing action as a starter, Book finished ranked 12th nationally in Total QBR per ESPN.com. As a junior, he completed 68.2% of his passes for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns versus 7 interceptions.
Book is down to 37th in Total QBR to date this season per ESPN.com. But he's still completing 61.7% of his passes. He's racked up 828 yards and 8 touchdowns versus just 2 interceptions in three games. Those are more than respectable numbers when you consider the injury issues in the backfield and that wide receiver Miles Boykin (872 yards, 8 touchdowns) and tight end Alize Mack (360 yards, 3 touchdowns) moved on to the NFL after the 2018 season. He's the unquestioned key cog on offense for Notre Dame.
The best way to limit Book's effectiveness is to pressure him all game. No quarterback likes to be under constant pressure with defenders in his face. They're hurried, uncomfortable, and ineffective. Rare is the QB that thrives under a relentless rush. Book is arguably the best QB opponent on the schedule but he will not win this game for the Irish from his back.
UVA's 20 sacks leads FBS right now. The linebackers are the dominant presence in the stat for the Hoos, but this must be a team effort. Aaron Faumui needs to continue his break out season by getting pressure from the defensive line. And defensive backs like Joey Blount and De'Vante Cross have to get home with their blitzes.
Look for the defensive coaches to employ every method at their disposal to make this happen.
Exploit Notre Dame's Pass Rush
As mentioned prior, UVA currently leads FBS with 20 quarterback sacks (tied with Florida and Ohio State). Jordan Mack has 5 sacks to his credit.
Notre Dame, who runs a 4-2-5, ranks 107th with 4 sacks.
The Irish will want to both contain and pressure Bryce Perkins. They probably feel pretty confident in their ability to do so after watching film on UVA's games against Pitt, Florida State, and Old Dominion.
In obvious pressure situations, the Hoos should use Perkins's athleticism to mitigate any pass blocking woes. I like predesigned plays that roll the pocket, especially to the right. There are several advantages to this plan. Perkins will face less pressure and have more time to make good decisions with the ball. And just being on the move will place additional pressure on the Notre Dame defense as Perkins will have the option to either pass or run.
At times, UVA has used misdirection well in Robert Anae's offense. This would be a good time to dust off those plays that the offense executes best. Keeping the Irish's 60th ranked defense (total defense rank per NCAA.com) guessing and on their toes will help offset any advantages in talent and raw athleticism.
And if the Hoos have a traditional halfback screen in the playbook, this will be the game to use it. Opposing defense certainly won't be keyed in on this play!
Dominate Field Position
The Hoos have three key metrics that are determinative to winning football games: +1 in turnover margin, scoring 24 points or more, and +5 in average starting field position.
It's not a game from the Bronco era, but one only needs to look at the 1995 FSU win to see how important field position dominance can be in determining the winner of a football game. UVA punter Will Brice repeatedly pinned the Seminoles deep in their own territory giving FSU long fields to work with all night long.
Against Notre Dame, the Hoos should be looking for the inverse of the FSU scenario. The shorter the field for UVA's offense, the better.
Given the question marks on UVA's offensive line and the possibility for rain during the game, I don't like the Wahoos' chances of mounting several long, sustained drives that result in points. Working on a short field, however, changes the calculus immensely as the margin for error becomes much more forgiving.
Both special teams and defense have a role to play here.
As long as ball security is the top focus, the return game can be a deadly weapon for UVA. Joe Reed's kick return talents speak for themself. Hopefully he isn't returning a lot of kicks. But when he does, the Hoos need to cash those in. And despite a shaky game fielding punts against FSU, punt returner Billy Kemp has shown enough ability to make defenders miss in small spaces to allow one to dream about dynamic punt returns.
A standout game from punter Nash Griffin, playing in his home state, can set up the defense to help maximize UVA's field position.
On defense, the formula will be pretty simple. Some combination of tackles for loss, sacks, turnover creation, and getting off the field on third down will allow the Hoos to seek out those short fields.
When I previewed Notre Dame in our preseason football preview, I gave this game a win confidence of 3 out of 10. I believed that this was the most difficult game on the schedule and I still feel that way.
It's no secret that Notre Dame is perpetually overrated by college football media. But there's no denying the raw talent on this roster.
Week 5 #CFB Matchups based on the # of 4 & 5⭐ Recruits on each Roster.— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) September 27, 2019
Notre Dame 47
Ohio State 59
Penn State 50
Oregon State 4
Texas Tech 5
Ole Miss 18
Iowa State 4
I'm fully onboard with star ratings telling only a small part of the story. And I'm aware of the large deficit the Hoos faced against Florida State with this stat as well. But it is a good example of the perceived, and probable, difference in raw talent on each sideline.
The difference between the FSU and Notre Dame game is primarily two-fold. Brian Kelly, despite his faults, is a superior coach when compared to Willie Taggart. And Notre Dame figures to have a pretty substantial home field advantage working in their favor.
I do feel pretty good about UVA's chance to compete in this game. I think they'll be in the game into the fourth quarter with a puncher's chance to pull the upset.
Whether it's the luck of the Irish or the program not being quite ready to win a road game versus a top ten opponent, I'm picking Notre Dame in a close one.
21 to 17, Notre Dame wins.