Keys & Picks: Virginia At Notre Dame 2019

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Wayne Taulapapa gets ready for Virginia.
No. 18 Virginia faces No. 10 Notre Dame on Saturday in Indiana. ~ Kris Wright

When Virginia and Notre Dame lock horns Saturday, there will be premier players all over the field for a top 20 showdown.

For UVA, that could mean someone like Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week Charles Snowden at linebacker or Joe Reed at receiver and returner. For ND, maybe it’s receiver Chase Claypool or linebacker Drew White, who rank in the top 40 nationally in receiving yards per game and tackles for loss respectively. Other names could make the list too.

A lot of the attention eventually will drift to the quarterbacks, though. Virginia’s Bryce Perkins and Notre Dame’s Ian Book, after all, are two of the nation’s stars at the high profile position.

Perkins set UVA records last season for total offense (3,603 yards) and touchdowns responsible for (34), while finishing as one of just two players in the nation with 2,600+ passing yards (2,680) and 900+ rushing yards (923). The other was Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray out of Oklahoma. This season, he’s already posted 843 passing yards with 6 touchdowns and 193 rushing yards with 2 touchdowns.

Book, meanwhile, took over as the starter during the 2018 season and didn’t disappoint. He became the first FBS quarterback to win his first five starts of a season with a completion percentage of more than 70% in each game since Russell Wilson did it at Wisconsin in 2011. He ranked 8th nationally with a 68.2% completion percentage. He finished with 2,628 passing yards with 19 touchdowns and 280 rushing yards with 4 touchdowns. He’s thrown for 828 yards and 8 touchdowns with 145 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns in three games this season.

Besides the fact that both are really good statistically, they both have been good late in games. Since the start of the 2018 season, Perkins is tied for the national lead with 7 touchdowns in close and late situations in the fourth quarter and Book is tied for the fourth most with 6 touchdowns in that same category. Over the last 12 games, Book leads all FBS quarterbacks in the fourth quarter with a 194.6 passer rating. In other words, if this game is close late (of note, Vegas doesn’t think it will be with ND as a 12.5-point favorite), then it will be interesting to watch the two QBs in crunch time.

The one area where Book might have a big advantage overall, though, is with bigger throws. On the season, he’s tied for 30th nationally with an 8.8 yards per attempt number. Perkins, meanwhile, is tied for 89th at 6.8 yards per attempt. That number gets bolstered by high yardage completions. Book has 16 passes for 20+ yards this season in three games, while Perkins has just 9 in four games.

Virginia quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said he thinks Perkins throws a good deep ball, but they’d like to connect on more of those throws.

“Some of his best throws are his deep balls and, man, we just missed a couple of those shots in the game [with ODU] for one reason or another, but he really throws a great deep ball,” Beck said. “It’s just a matter of getting that chemistry going so we can connect on a few more of them. We took a decent amount of them in the game and if we would have hit two or three of them, we’d feel way better about it but we didn’t really hit any of them so it’s just kind of frustrating. That’s something he does really well and we want to keep doing because it will help us get points if we can get hit those.”

With that in mind, it’s on to the keys and picks for Notre Dame.

Kris’ Keys To Winning

1. Touchdowns

The team with the most points wins. Obviously. The way to get more points is to make the most of your possessions, particularly when you get close to the end zone. That means touchdowns once you’re inside the 20. Notre Dame is doing a great with that this season. The Irish have scored on 100% of their red zone possessions (tied for 1st nationally) with an 81.82% touchdown percentage (9 touchdowns in 11 tries; tied for 10th nationally). Simply put, ND has put the ball in the end zone for the most part when the opportunity has been there.

UVA, on the other hand, is leaving some points on the table. The Hoos have scored on 80% of their red zone possessions (tied for 83rd nationally) with a 65.00% touchdown percentage (13 in 20 tries; 53rd nationally). In a game against a top 10 opponent like Notre Dame, that probably won’t cut it.

The real key here, however, might be who can generate the most attempts in the red zone or bypass it with explosive touchdowns altogether. Virginia has allowed just 11 trips to the red zone, but the Irish are even better with just 6 red zone trips allowed so far.

2. Tackling

The Cavaliers enter this game tied for the lead nationally with 20 sacks on the season. ODU tried, and had some success early in the game, to negate that pass rush with quick throws or screens. You can assume that more opponents will adopt that strategy, particularly if you have an accurate quarterback and playmakers at receiver and tight end. Ian Book and his Irish teammates fit the bill there.

To get the ball out quickly, however, you sacrifice length and are relying heavily on yards after the catch to generate yardage and points. From UVA’s perspective, that puts a priority on tackling. After a good start through the first two games, that area has slipped a bit the last two weeks against Florida State and Old Dominion. The Cavalier coaches, for example, marked two of the Monarchs’ touchdowns as missed tackles on those possessions. Book is likely going to find his targets so the Hoos need to close quickly on those throws with some sure tackling.

3. Turnovers

Yeah, I know. This could be (and is) a key every week. It feels especially important this week, though. To win on the road as an underdog in a top 20 showdown, you likely can’t lose the turnover battle. Add in the fact that Notre Dame is among the nation’s best so far in turnover margin and the road gets tougher. The Irish are tied for 8th nationally with a +5 turnover margin. Within that margin, Notre Dame has 5 fumble recoveries and we’ve seen UVA put the ball on the ground this season without losing the fumble already. The Hoos, by the way, rank 102nd (tied) in turnover margin at -2 on the season.

The Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

Let’s get a few facts out of the way. No. 10 Notre Dame has never lost a home game to an ACC team when ranked (20-0). Virginia has never won a road game against a top 10 opponent (0-27). UVA hadn’t won a game as a ranked team since 2007 until two weeks ago. The Hoos haven’t even played in a game where both teams were ranked since 2011 and they’re 0-7 in the last seven games in that scenario. The last win? The 1998 comeback at Virginia Tech when No. 16 UVA defeated No. 20 VT, 36-32.

Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall says his team likes doing hard things so that’s a good thing. An upset is going to be hard to pull off. Can the Hoos do it? Yes, they’re certainly capable of winning this type of game. The program is built around defense. Defense travels and defense keeps you in most games. Will they win? No, I don’t think so. NOTRE DAME 27, VIRGINIA 20. Season to date: 4-0.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

It wasn’t that long ago that Virginia football was dealt a humiliating loss by the University of Richmond in Scott Stadium. Now here we are, with the preseason ACC Coastal Division favorite Wahoos traveling to Notre Dame in a Top 20 showdown in week five of 2018. It’s hard to believe the Virginia program has come this far in such a short time. Regardless of the outcome on Saturday, Cavalier fans should be thrilled.

Now, can Virginia come out of South Bend with a win? The answer is yes; however, the Cavaliers will have to play much, much better than they did against Old Dominion last week, and they will have to handle the toughest atmosphere this group has faced.

Notre Dame features a well-balanced passing attack that will test the Hoos’ linebackers and secondary with good receivers, running backs who can catch, and tight end Cole Kmet, who had nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown last week at No. 3 Georgia. The Virginia defense, which enters the game tied with Florida with the most sacks in FBS football (20), should be able to harass quarterback Ian Book and force a turnover or two. Keeping this offense under 20 seems like a challenge, though.

Offensively, Virginia looked terrible against ODU last week. The offensive line could be without its starting center once again, and that group will need to be really good against a Notre Dame defensive front that may not have many sacks (only four on the season) but is averaging eight tackles for loss per game. Assuming Bryce Perkins is relatively healthy (he looked beat up at the end of the ODU game), if the offensive line gets going, the Hoos could exploit an Irish rush defense yielding over 200 yards per game.

In the end, I think the home field advantage and a suspect UVA offensive line will be enough to push Notre Dame over the top, but I expect a good showing from the Cavaliers and a close game. NOTRE DAME 24, VIRGINIA 21. Season to date: 4-0.

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