Pregame Six Pack: Hunting for the Hoos

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After a very impressive opening night victory over Texas, Notre Dame packs up and takes flight, heading to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the first time in school history to take on the Cavaliers. A week after Mike London’s team took a tough opening loss to UCLA, the home team will try to rally at Scott Stadium.

With the Irish another double-digit favorite, many expect Notre Dame’s momentum to roll right into an early-season showdown with Georgia Tech. But as we’ll soon get to, winning on the road has been a challenge of late, and it’s as good of a time as any for the Irish to put their road woes behind them and start the season 2-0.

With the first of Notre Dame’s six ACC opponents on tap for a Saturday afternoon start in Charlottesville, let’s get to the pregame six pack.

 

Road woes? Time to end those. 

Popular stat this week: Notre Dame hasn’t won a road game since beating Air Force in 2013. Unpacking that stat a bit, it’s both understandable and yet a little bit unnerving.

Last year, the Irish lost on the road to Florida State, Arizona State and USC. While they won three times outside of Notre Dame Stadium beating Navy, Syracuse and Purdue, games all played in neutral sites.

In 2013, Notre Dame finished the regular season with a loss to Stanford. Just a few weeks before that was the disappointing road debacle against Pitt. So while this is hardly the losing streaks we used to hear about when Michigan State or Boston College came onto the schedule, it’s a legitimate (although short-term) trend, and one that you can expect Brian Kelly will let his team know about.

A Notre Dame loss on Saturday would be a shock—even for Virginia fans. But sandwiched between an opening night date with Texas and a Top 15 matchup against Georgia Tech, this Saturday’s afternoon kickoff has all the makings of a trap game.

 

Welcome to Virginia, Irish. Everybody’s excited to have you. 

Saturday will be Notre Dame’s first visit to Charlottesville for football, and just the second time the two programs have played each other in football. The last came in the 1989 Kickoff Classic, when the No. 2 Irish, fresh off a national championship, handily beat a Virginia team that ended up with 10 wins.

While the Mike London era has brought a sense of apathy to the Wahoo fanbase, this game seems to standout from others. And this quote from Jerry Ratcliffe of the Charlottesville Daily Progress pretty much captured it:

“The game sold out in 25 minutes, surpassed in recent UVa history by only Taylor Swift’s concert and the Cavalier baseball team’s unexpected hosting of a NCAA Super Regional en route to its national championship.”

Finishing behind Taylor Swift and former Notre Dame baseball assistant coach Brian O’Connor’s national championship baseball team? The allure of the Irish is alive and well.

 

Game tape confirms what we saw last Saturday: The Cavaliers expect a stout defense. 

Yesterday, we talked about needing to see more from Notre Dame’s defense, with their dominant performance against Texas just a single datapoint. But when asked about Notre Dame’s front seven and the linebacking corps led by Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, London knows his offense is in for a challenge.

“I believe that their front seven is very formidable.  Guys that are again athletic and fast and we just played a team that was really fast, really athletic,” London said, comparing the Irish defense to UCLA’s.

“You look at Notre Dame from guys up front and the linebacking corps, they’re capable of running and running out of mistakes. It’s going to be important for us to be on schedule, stay on schedule, try to do things that we can that are our strengths and control the football a little bit and make sure we use those players or those schemes that can help us be successful.”

Last week, former five-star running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell had a big game catching the ball out of the backfield, reeling in eight catches for 100 yards. While the power ground game that Virginia hoped to deploy stuttered, after watching Texas try unsuccessfully to catch the Irish with a speed attack, the Cavaliers will try to slow it down and grind things out.

We’ll see how successful that strategy turns out.

 

Where should we expect to see improvement from Malik Zaire? How about as a runner. 

After jumping into the national spotlight with a near-perfect game throwing the football, quarterback Malik Zaire’s game is already in midseason form. But as we look for areas for him to improve, Zaire the zone-read, option quarterback needs to do a better job with his decision making and reading the play.

Kelly was asked about Zaire’s day as a runner. And needless to say he wasn’t all that impressed with his nine carries for 16 yards.

“He should have been nine carries for 60, 70 yards, maybe more. There’s a lot of room for improvement in there,” Kelly said. “He’s very capable. He knows where he needs to get better in that. So the fundamentals of working in his reads, and it’s all very correctible and things that we’ll get straightened out this week.”

We saw a few misses by Zaire, most notably a fumbled meshpoint with C.J. Prosise and allowing Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson to nearly decapitate Josh Adams. Zaire also did a bit too much bouncing for my liking, trying to beat players to the outside instead of getting north and south against the defense.

I expect the ground game to be on display Saturday afternoon, especially with rain scheduled to hit Charlottesville right around kickoff. So while that could slow down the passing game, it should put the crosshairs on Zaire to be a good read-option triggerman, something he’s more than capable of doing.

 

There’s a lot of familiarity with Notre Dame on the Virginia sidelines. 

It may be the first visit to Charlottesville for Notre Dame’s football team, but the Cavaliers coaching staff has plenty of familiarity with the Irish football program.

We already mentioned former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. Spending the 2008 and 2009 seasons working for Charlie Weis, Tenuta left South Bend when Weis was relieved of his duties and spent some time at North Carolina State before returning to his alma mater as defensive coordinator.

Another former Weis assistant coaches for the Cavaliers with defensive line coach Jappy Oliver working for Mike London. Oliver filled that role for Weis’ first four seasons, but was replaced by veteran Randy Hart after the 2008 season. Oliver has a Grand Valley connection with Brian Kelly, coaching the defensive line back in 1988 when Kelly was just a graduate assistant. He also worked with Irish coaching analyst Jeff Quinn at Buffalo as his defensive line coach, one of many stops in a long coaching career.

Virginia offensive line coach Dave Borbely spent four seasons working with Bob Davie in South Bend. Before working at Notre Dame, Borbely coached the offensive line for former Irish coach Ty Willingham at Stanford.

 

Don’t look now, but the emphasis on the running game is happening in a hurry. 

Lost amidst the stunning accuracy Malik Zaire displayed last Saturday was the fact that Notre Dame ran the ball 52 times against Texas. The comes after finishing the 2014 season with 51 rushing attempts in the Music City Bowl.

That’s the first time Notre Dame has run the ball over 50 times in consecutive games since the 2005 season, when they ran it 50 times in a lopsided win over Purdue and then 52 times in the narrow loss to USC.

Tallying the two-game total of 103 carries, it’s been since 2001 since Notre Dame has run the ball more in two consecutive games, dating back to a two-game, late-season stretch against Boston College and Tennessee. The Irish lost both those football games.

Just about everybody expected the Irish to emphasize the run this season, especially as Zaire got his feet wet. Well, Zaire threw the ball better than everybody thought he would, and Notre Dame still ran the ball more than they have in a decade.

So far, so good.