No team in college football gains more yards per game than Virginia.
That is the challenge the Notre Dame defense faces tonight when the No. 7 Irish (8-1) travel to Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Virginia, to take on the Cavaliers (6-3).
The matchup against the explosive Virginia attack, led by aerial wizard Brennan Armstrong at quarterback, is the most challenging obstacle standing between Notre Dame and a spot in a New Year's Six bowl.
The Irish are coming off a 34-6 win over Navy, but the Midshipmen's triple-option rushing attack is far removed from Virginia's pass-heavy scheme.
Notre Dame will instead look to glean what it can from its 44-34 victory over North Carolina on Oct. 30, in which the Irish gave up 564 yards.
“They have a lot of motion, a lot of different personnel (groupings), just a lot of different looks, they're pretty unique in that,” linebacker Drew White said of the Cavaliers. “There's a lot of carry-over from what we needed to fix against North Carolina, so for our defense, it's a little like a revenge game.”
Irish coach Brian Kelly compared the left-handed Armstrong, who is the NCAA's leader in total offense at more than 425 yards per game, with Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell, noting that both are adept at escaping the pocket and extending plays when they're pressured. The Irish had particular trouble wrapping up Howell.
While North Carolina was led by one star pass-catcher in slot receiver Josh Downs, the Cavaliers have four receivers who pick up 15 yards per reception, led by Dontayvion Wicks, who has 42 catches for 972 yards and nine touchdowns.
“It's not like North Carolina where you knew where the ball was going to go,” Kelly said. “Which makes this offense so difficult to defend because if (Armstrong) does extend the play, these guys are all dangerous.”
Armstrong is no shoo-in to take the field tonight, however.
The redshirt junior got hurt late in Virginia's 66-49 loss to BYU on Oct. 30 and the Cavaliers were off last week.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday he wouldn't provide an update of Armstrong's status until the ball is kicked off.
If Armstrong can't go, the Irish will have to be ready for a completely different, more run-heavy offense under true freshman backup Jay Woolfolk.
“We're ready for either QB,” White said. “I personally think Armstrong will be out there. You only get a couple times to play Notre Dame in your life and I think he's going to want to play against us.
“So we're looking forward to that.”
Note: Irish All-American safety Kyle Hamilton will miss a third consecutive game because of the knee injury he suffered against USC on Oct. 23. Kelly insisted that Hamilton plans to play when he is medically cleared to do so, trying to put to rest any notion that the potential top-10 pick in the NFL draft is protecting his draft status by sitting out.
Notre Dame at Virginia
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.
Records: No. 7 Notre Dame (8-1), Virginia (6-3)
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM
Open Buch: Irish coach Brian Kelly said the Irish plan to give change-of-pace quarterback Tyler Buchner more responsibility this week. It is unclear how many snaps Buchner will play in place of starter Jack Coan, but Kelly said he's been impressed with the freshman's consistency recently and is ready to "open (the playbook) up even more" after limiting him somewhat through the first several games of his career. After an up-and-down start as a passer, the hyper-athletic Buchner has completed five straight throws over his last three games, picking up 10.4 yards per attempt.
Run game unleashed: Notre Dame's rushing attack has made enormous strides in recent weeks, with running back Kyren Williams averaging 144 rushing yards in his last three games on 6.8 yards per attempt. This week, Williams and backup Logan Diggs (who picked up 7.4 yards per carry against Navy a week ago) will get to run against a leaky Virginia front giving up 5.7 yards per rush, the eighth-worst mark in the country. Throw in the fact that No. 2 Irish back Chris Tyree seems to be fully recovered from the turf toe that has limited him in recent weeks and it could be a big game on the ground for the Irish offense.
Bend but don't break: On 34 opponent drives into the red zone this season, Notre Dame has given up just 13 touchdowns, a 38.2% rate that ranks No. 4 in the nation. Kelly said the key to that success has been disguising coverages, making the red zone a chess match between defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and the opposing quarterback. Freeman might face one of his toughest tests tonight in prolific Virginia passer Brennan Armstrong. The Irish could well surrender 500-plus yards against the Cavaliers, but the real game will begin when Virginia gets close to the goal line.
Prediction: No. 7 Notre Dame 42, Virginia 37
- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette