After a well-deserved bye week, Virginia enters its toughest three-game stretch of the entire season, starting off by inviting No. 7 Notre Dame into Scott Stadium for a Saturday night matchup. The Cavaliers (6-3, 4-2 ACC) last played two weeks ago, losing to BYU in a 66-49 shootout. The Fighting Irish (8-1), on the other hand, have been playing their best football of the year, coming into Charlottesville on a four-game winning streak after pummeling Navy 34-6 last Saturday.
While any home game against Notre Dame is bound to be important, Virginia has to be thinking about the last time they played the Fighting Irish on its home turf. In 2015, the Cavaliers had a coincidentally also top-10 Notre Dame on the ropes, leading by one with less than a minute remaining. Unfortunately, Will Fuller caught a last second touchdown for the Fighting Irish, escaping with a win and destroying the hope of Virginia fans all across the country. Now, however, a better Cavalier team has the chance for revenge on Saturday night.
Players to watch
Junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong
Armstrong’s apparent rib injury suffered in the second half of the BYU game has a strong argument to be one of the most devastating possible losses any team could have in all of FBS football. The junior from Ohio is the catalyst for the offense that leads the country in yards gained per game and, furthermore, nearly leads the team in rushing as well. The Cavaliers have already seen how a limited Armstrong can affect the game — Virginia’s worst offensive performance of the season came against Wake Forest when he was nursing a lower body injury. Unfortunately, in Monday’s press conference, Coach Bronco Mendenhall was not able to give a clean answer to Armstrong’s status.
“I probably won’t have an update until the ball is kicked off,” Mendenhall said.
It seems that no one knows for certain who will be starting the game at quarterback for the Cavaliers, but if and how the star of the Virginia team plays is the single most important factor in determining who will come out on top.
Notre Dame junior safety Kyle Hamilton
On the opposing side, the Fighting Irish have also been dealing with an injury to their best player. Hamilton, a projected first-round draft pick, has not played in Notre Dame's past two games after suffering a knee injury. The massive, 6-foot-4 safety has been fantastic for the Fighting Irish this season, leading the team in both interceptions and passes defended. Against a prolific offense such as Virginia’s, Notre Dame needs to be at full strength, and without Hamilton backing up the secondary, the Cavaliers’ playmakers such as sophomore receiver Dontayvion Wicks may be able to have a field day with explosive plays.
Keys to the Game
Create pressure on the quarterback
One of the main issues plaguing Virginia’s defense this season is the lack of pressure put on opposing quarterbacks. When BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, for instance, has all the time in the world to throw — the Cavaliers did not record a single sack all game — there is only so much the secondary can do. While Notre Dame typically is not the team to try and fix defensive line issues against, this version of the Fighting Irish is a little bit different. Notre Dame lost four starters from last year’s offensive line, and while the unit has gotten better over the past few games, it still isn’t incredibly reliable. When that is combined with the fact that senior quarterback Jack Coan is not a mobile quarterback, there is a good chance that Virginia can create some havoc in the backfield, which would be an extremely pleasant surprise and could potentially make a dramatic difference on Saturday.
Keep the balance on offense
While the much-maligned Virginia running game has had its fair share of critics — the leading rusher for the Cavaliers has yet to break 300 yards — the offense has done a much better job recently having a more balanced attack. Especially if Armstrong is not at full strength, it will be up to players like senior running back Wayne Taulapapa and graduate running back Devin Darrington to keep drives moving, especially if Hamilton plays. The game, like most Virginia has played so far, lines up to be another high-scoring affair, especially with Notre Dame scrong at least 30 points in each of its last four games. Therefore, a running game is crucial, both to protect the quarterback and keep the Fighting Irish defense guessing about what may come next. If Virginia can break 200 yards on the ground like they have the past two games, the Cavaliers will have their best shot to defeat a top-10 team for the first time since 2005.
Kickoff for the Notre Dame game is set for Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on ABC.