Three-List Preview: Virginia Hosts No. 7 Notre Dame In Primetime Action

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The University of Virginia football program returns to the field on Saturday evening for a home showdown with No. 7 Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish carry an 8-1 record into Charlottesville and still have hopes of competing for the National Championship. Brian Kelly’s team is coming off a 34-6 beatdown of Navy, its most lopsided victory of the season since ousting Wisconsin, 41-13. Notre Dame has won 22 consecutive regular season games versus Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, including a 35-20 victory over UVA in South Bend in 2019. This season’s ACC contests have proven challenging for Notre Dame, which needed overtime to defeat Florida State, outscored Virginia Tech 11-0 in the final four minutes to escape Blacksburg with a 3-point win, and defeated UNC 44-34 in South Bend.

The health of Brennan Armstrong is the major question heading into Saturday’s showdown between Virginia and No. 7 Notre Dame. ~ Photo by Kris Wright of The Sabre

For Virginia, the outcome of the Notre Dame game means nothing in terms of its goal of a conference championship. The Hoos (6-3) close out the 2021 campaign at Pittsburgh and at home against Virginia Tech. Win those two games, and Virginia is the 2021 Coastal Division champion. Still, a matchup against a Top 10 program on ABC is an opportunity the Hoos would love to capitalize on with a win, particularly after a 66-49 loss to a Top 25 team in BYU the last time out. Virginia lost to the Cougars in Provo on October 30 and had a much-needed bye week last week.

Injuries are the story entering Saturday’s primetime showdown. The status of Virginia starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong is in question. Armstrong left the BYU game in the fourth quarter with an apparent rib injury. Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall has been mum on the status of his star player. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is likely without star safety and likely NFL first round draft pick Kyle Hamilton, who has been sidelined the last two games with a knee injury. The savvy safety is a major impact performer in Notre Dame’s defensive backfield, and his absence will be missed if Armstrong and the Cavalier passing game is in full swing. UVA leads the ACC in passing yards per game (401) and the nation in total yards per game (545.2).

Expect a buzzing Scott Stadium under the lights Saturday at 7:30 p.m. What do Cavalier fans need to look for? Here is the latest Three-List Preview.

Three Fighting Irish To Watch: Offense

Kyren Williams, Running Back, #23

Williams, who posted 1,125 yards rushing last season, began his sophomore campaign with modest production. In Notre Dame’s first five games of 2021, the 5’9”, 200-pound St. Louis native rushed 77 times for 289 yards – an average of 3.8 yards per carry – and three scores. His 2020 form has returned in the past four games, when Williams has tallied 513 yards and six touchdowns while averaging five yards per rush. He produced back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts in wins over Southern Cal and UNC.

Williams brings more to Notre Dame than just rushing ability, however. An emotional leader for the Irish, he’ll be hyped and ready to take on Virginia’s challenge Saturday evening. He also brings receiving ability – he is second on the team in receptions with 34 – and is a threat as Notre Dame’s punt returner.

The Quarterbacks

Graduate transfer Jack Coan (#17) had some early-to-mid season struggles. Against Purdue in Week 3, Coan completed only 48.4% of his passes but threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns. Against his former school, Wisconsin, in Week 4, he completed 51.7% of his throws for 158 yards and a score. In Week 5 versus Cincinnati, Coan threw for only 114 yards and was intercepted once in Notre Dame’s only loss of the season. The 6’3”, 225-pound senior has seemingly turned a corner since the Virginia Tech game.

Coan struggled early versus the Hokies, causing Kelly to turn to true freshman Tyler Buchner (#12). Buchner sparked Notre Dame but struggled in the second half. With his team trailing by eight with 3:55 remaining in the game, Coan was given another opportunity and took advantage, leading the Irish to the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion and game-winning field goal. In the three games after, Coan has completed 59-of-81 passes (72.8%) for 671 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in victories over USC, UNC and Navy.

While Coan has been Notre Dame’s primary quarterback, Buchner has played a consistent role. Coan is a pocket passer, but Buchner is a skilled and tough runner in addition to capable thrower. He had 12 carries for 67 yards and a score versus Virginia Tech. In the last three contests, Buchner has rushed nine times total for 36 yards and a touchdown while completing all five pass attempts for 52 yards and a touchdown. Brian Kelly noted during his Monday press conference that the talented true freshman could see an even more expanded role in the coming games.

“I think that we’re at the point where the role continues to expand even more to where we’ve seen,” Kelly said. “I think it’s been in a box in a sense, where we’ve limited in some capacity. I think this week we kind of open it up even more and continue to expand it a little bit more than what we’ve had because we’ve seen really consistent performances.”

Expect Coan to start and play most of the game on Saturday, but Buchner should get some time as well.

Kevin Austin, Wide Receiver, #4

Tight end Michael Mayer leads Notre Dame in receptions (45) and is an important part of the Irish passing attack, so certainly be on the lookout for #87. On the outside at receiver, UVA needs to keep receiver Kevin Austin Jr. in check. Austin leads Notre Dame in receiving yards (531) and receiving touchdowns (5), and he has demonstrated the big-play ability that has consistently given the UVA secondary fits in recent years. The 6’2”, 215-pound junior is averaging just over 17 yards per catch and had a 70-yard touchdown reception last week against Navy.

An under-the-radar player to watch this week is Lorenzo Styles Jr. (#21), who is expected to help take over the role left by injured starting receiver Avery Davis, who suffered a torn ACL against Navy and is out for the season. Davis had 27 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns before going down last week. Styles only has nine catches all season. He has produced 160 yards out of those nine receptions, averaging a team-high 17.8 yards per reception.

Three Fighting Irish To Watch: Defense

JD Bertrand, Linebacker, #27

Virginia fans can expect to hear Bertrand’s name called a bunch Saturday evening. The 79 tackles he has totaled this season are almost double that of the next Notre Dame defender (this happens to be Isaiah Foskey, who has 42 total tackles). Bertrand also leads the Irish in solo tackles with 48 (Foskey is next with 30) and is fourth in tackles for loss with six.

Isaiah Foskey, Defensive Lineman #7

Foskey, who measures in at 6’5”, 260 pounds, is the only Notre Dame defender to have reached double digits in tackles for loss, totaling 10.5 through nine games. In only one game – Wisconsin – has Foskey failed to make at least one tackle for loss. Nine of those tackles for loss are sacks, which is easily the best on the team. Notre Dame has a total of 16.5 sacks on the season, and Foskey has accounted for over half. In addition, this dynamic defender has three forced fumbles.

Clarence Davis, Cornerback, #9

Davis racked up seven pass deflections as a true freshman in 2020, earning Second-Team Freshman All-America honors from The Athletic. As a sophomore, the 5’11.5”, 195-pound Davis has started all nine games for the Fighting Irish. He has 24 solo tackles, two pass deflections and an interception to his credit. All three Irish cornerbacks expected to play significant minutes on Saturday evening have at least one interception this season – Lewis, 6’2.5”, 205-pound Cam Hart (two INTs), and TaRiq Bracy (one INT).

Three Keys

Brennan Armstrong’s Status

The questions here are two-fold. Most importantly, is Armstrong going to play? Defeating the No. 9 team in the country will be a difficult task without Armstrong, who captured UVA’s single season school record for passing yards last time out versus BYU. Not only is he having an outstanding season, but there is no experienced, proven backup to take over if he is sidelined.

Secondly, if Armstrong does play, how much will the injury affect his performance? As long as he can throw the ball well and with confidence, the Virginia offense will be a matchup problem for Notre Dame.

Will The Virginia Defense Be Able To Bounce Back?

UVA surrendered 699 yards of offense and 59 points to North Carolina in Chapel Hill earlier this season. The Cavaliers’ next opponent was Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons racked up 37 points in a 20-point win in Scott Stadium, but the UVA defense was active and tackled well, earning its highest tackling grade of the season according to Pro Football Focus. Wake Forest’s offense was simply too good that day, continuously making the plays it needed to in order to keep drives alive and put up points.

Safety Joey Blount and the Cavalier defense rank among the nation’s worst. Will they be able to stymie Notre Dame enough to get a W Saturday night? ~ Photo by Kris Wright

BYU hit Virginia with 734 yards and 66 points in Provo almost two weeks ago. UVA matched his horrendous tackling grade from the UNC contest and had no answer for Cougar running back Tyler Allgeier, who rushed for over 200 yards and five touchdowns. A banged up Cavalier defense had a bye week to recover physically and work on the fundamentals once again. Will it be enough to slow down Notre Dame enough for the offense to win in a shootout?

Turnovers

Whether it is Armstrong or Woolfolk or someone else at quarterback for Virginia, taking care of the football is a must. Notre Dame is tied for 21 in the nation in turnover margin, forcing 17 turnovers – 12 interceptions and five fumble recoveries – while giving up 11. Virginia had two crucial turnovers against BYU inside its own territory, setting the Cougars up for two short-field touchdowns. The Hoos can ill-afford any miscues against Notre Dame, especially turnovers that give the Fighting Irish a short field.

PICKS

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

The Hoos are back at home after a bye week with a challenging three-game stretch awaiting. First up is Notre Dame, who rolls into town with a top 10 ranking and a balanced team that ranks top 41 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. That basically sets the stage for what we’ve all come to expect at this point: can UVA do enough on defense and avoid mistakes on offense or special teams to win a high-scoring game?

There’s the biggest question: will Brennan Armstrong play? He’s likely to be a game day decision after hurting his rib area in the BYU loss. If he plays, Virginia has the goods to be able to move the ball and score on Notre Dame. The Hoos lead the country in total offense this week for a reason and that’s because Armstrong can sling it all over the place with multiple targets delivering game after game. If he plays, UVA has a real shot at a big win. If he doesn’t, those chances diminish significantly.

The main concern for me on the other side of the ball is run defense, even though ND’s stats are better as a passing team than as a rushing team. The three losses for Virginia this season have featured the defense giving up 392 (UNC), 203 (Wake), and 385 (BYU) yards on the ground. In 4 of the 6 wins, the defense has held the rushing yards below 200. The Irish come in averaging 133.3 rushing yards per game – 98th nationally – but they seem capable of a bigger number considering the Hoos’ issues. Plus, the visitors have a four-game streak of rushing yards better than their season average with Kyren Williams going for 81 yards or more in all four games with 6 touchdowns. The hopeful news is that the defense has been better at home with two shutouts, a 14-point outing against Illinois, and a game where Georgia Tech was in the 20’s until late when an onsides kick recovery and drive skewed the final number on the scoreboard. Even the Wake Forest game when the Hoos allowed a big number of 37 doesn’t look too bad at this point because the Deacs have scored fewer points only once this season. Can the defense get a little lift from prime time at Scott Stadium?

Ultimately, I don’t think anything points to a Virginia upset. I said on the podcast this week that maybe this can be the payback game for Sad Virginia fan slumping over the wall when Notre Dame stole a 34-27 win late in 2015 in their only previous trip to Charlottesville. One can hope. I can’t pick it that way, though. NOTRE DAME 45, VIRGINIA 41. Season to date: 5-4

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

The formula for Virginia to win is to post a lot of points and hope the defense can make enough stops. Aside from the running of Williams, the Notre Dame offense is not overly impressive, mainly because of a lack of consistent firepower at the quarterback position. Jack Coan has shown he can struggle at times, and Buchner is a talented but young player. I didn’t think BYU’s offense was intimidating, though, and the Cougars rolled through the Cavalier defense. I expect Virginia’s defense to respond well and play better. However, will they be able to get the stops they need to when they need to. UVA could not get it done against Wake Forest.

Offensively, the health of Brennan Armstrong is a huge question mark. If he plays and is not hampered in the passing game, I think UVA has a real chance to pull out a win. But not knowing Armstrong’s status, it’s hard for me to pick the Hoos here. NOTRE DAME 34, VIRGINIA 27. Season to date: 5-4

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