And In That Corner … The No. 18 Virginia Cavaliers stand as Notre Dame’s toughest home challenge

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Many Notre Dame fans may see No. 18 Virginia as a second-tier ACC opponent, but the No. 10 Irish (2-1) cannot afford to overlook the Cavaliers. Virginia (4-0) arrives with a preseason All-American at cornerback in senior Bryce Hall and a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback in senior Bryce Perkins. It returned eight defensive starters from a unit that gave up just 20.1 points per game last year, and has already proven leaning on that defense can keep it in any game — the Cavaliers have had to come from behind in all three of their FBS games thus far this season.

This space bought in on Virginia in the preseason, but let’s get a better perspective on the Cavaliers from Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

DF: I appreciate you taking the time to help preview a Notre Dame game for the second year in a row. The oddity here, of course, is that it is a different opponent after focusing on Virginia Tech last November. We can return to the Hokies in a month or so.

On that note, I do want to ask, I barely get through the football season while worrying about only one team. How do you manage to cover two teams, let alone two with the profiles of Virginia and Virginia Tech?

MB: I do wish my Notre Dame trips were a bit more spread out. One a year with either Tech or Virginia would be nice!

I won’t lie, it’s a load to cover both teams. The hardest part, obviously, is when they both play on the same day and I miss games. The week itself sets up pretty nicely for me. Mondays I go to UVA for a press conference with head coach Bronco Mendenhall and players. Tuesday, I go to Virginia Tech for interviews with players and assistant coaches. Wednesday, back at UVA for coordinator interviews. Then Thursday-Saturday, whatever game or games I’m covering.

The hardest part is just keeping things straight — I frequently mix up in my head, who plays AT Duke this year and who gets Duke at home. Before one became an All-American and the other transferred, I was always mixing up Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall and Tech corner Bryce Watts.

At some point this preseason, I summarized my notes on the Cavaliers into one line of, “Bronco Mendenhall defense returns eight starters + dangerous, dynamic, dual-threat QB + Coastal.” Yet, I got a sense I was higher on Virginia than many, especially as August conversations often mentioned Miami and Virginia Tech ahead of Virginia as Coastal contenders, even though the Cavaliers finished atop the division in the ACC preseason media poll. Both the Hurricanes and the Hokies had better odds of winning the division, per bookmakers.

What expectations were there before the season in that locker room? On that campus? From you?

The Cavaliers expected to “take the next step” this season. Now, what does that mean? The team is actually pretty blunt about their goals – win the Coastal Division, beat rival Virginia Tech and win a bowl game. Changing perceptions is hard and it’s taken people — fans, media and Vegas — awhile to get on board with the fact that, in a very short time, Mendenhall has completely turned this program around.

Four weeks in, with a pair of ACC wins under its belt, it’s clear Virginia is the best team in the Coastal Division and probably the second-best team in the league behind Clemson. But there is still such a massive gap between Clemson and the Cavaliers.

As for my expectations, if Bryce Perkins stays healthy, I expect UVA to achieve all its goals this year.

The 4-0 start has not come without its moments of drama, namely letting Old Dominion get out to an early lead last week and the entirety of that Florida State game two weeks ago. Did the relatively close affair with the Monarchs strike you as simply a sandwich spot between facing the Seminoles and the Irish?

The Old Dominion game was the classic trap game, sandwiched between a big home win over Florida State and this trip to Notre Dame. Mendenhall even admitted he didn’t think he or his team recovered emotionally from what they expended against FSU until the Thursday before the ODU game.

With that said, I’m not too worried about what I saw in the first half last week. I wasn’t all that surprised by the first-half letdown.

The major takeaways, however, were that the offensive line is still very much a work in progress. Not having starting center Olusegun Oluwatimi (hand) for that game seemed to really disrupt things. It’s unclear if Oluwatimi will be cleared to play this week.

The second thing is that Virginia’s defense can carry it when the offense isn’t clicking. The Cavaliers held Old Dominion to just 46 total yards in the second half and linebackers Charles Snowden and Jordan Mack were disruptive forces.

Cavaliers senior cornerback Bryce Hall has racked up five interceptions and 38 pass breakups across his career, numbers dampened by opposing quarterbacks simply avoiding throwing near him. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

It is a classic Mendenhall defense as far as I can tell, complete with a preseason All-American cornerback in Bryce Hall and a vaunted defensive line. Hall led the country in pass breakups last year, and that defensive line helps lead the country in sacks this season, already with 20. (Context: Notre Dame has just four sacks, all in the opener.)

The Irish are unlikely to try to run the ball, given their own struggles now meeting Virginia’s No. 12 rush defense, which allows only 2.17 yards per carry, No. 9 in the country. Thus, the wonder is, how are those pressures created? Blitzes? Coverage forcing the quarterback to hold the ball? Just that good of a defensive front?

Virginia’s No. 1 focus in the offseason was improving its run defense. The Cavaliers set a goal of holding teams to 3.5 yards per carry or fewer. They’ve far exceeded that so far, thanks to a much deeper defensive line and a ton of talent and depth at linebacker. The sacks and tackles for loss have also been an emphasis – creating havoc, is how the coaches describe it. That’s been achieved mainly via the blitz, as is often the case with 3-4 defenses. The confidence Virginia has in Hall to cover downfield has freed it up to be more aggressive using blitzes. 17.5 of the Cavaliers’ 20 sacks have come from linebackers and defensive backs.

Not that Mendenhall has been uncomplimentary of Notre Dame senior quarterback Ian Book. To pull from Mendenhall’s Monday press conference: “Not only mobile but quick decision-maker. When you’re playing Notre Dame, just jumps out really quickly how well-coached, well-schooled and not only in fundamentals, but decision-making, the majority of the team is.” What will be Mendenhall’s approach to slow Book and the Irish passing attack, its best (and sometimes only) offensive threat?

Stopping the run against Notre Dame will still be the team’s top priority. The way it’s been playing, it’s been able to play run defense, contain mobile quarterbacks with the speed of linebackers like Mack and Snowden and still cover downfield. That will be the gameplan against Notre Dame, even though the Irish have much better personnel to test that plan.

Cavaliers senior quarterback Bryce Perkins has already accounted for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns this season, most-notably including a pivotal two-point conversion run against Florida State and the first breakthrough last week against Old Dominion. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Flipping to the Cavaliers’ offense, it starts and ends with senior quarterback Bryce Perkins. I suspect many Notre Dame fans are largely unfamiliar with him, even if he accounted for 34 total touchdowns last year. How has he improved this season?

Offensively, Bryce Perkins is a true star. He’s a dazzling playmaker with a knack for making big plays in the biggest moments. His two-point conversion run against Florida State and his rushing touchdown against Old Dominion are great examples of that.

He’s taken another step in his passing this season. As Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder noted, Perkin is a true quarterback, not just a great athlete playing the position. Perkins has completed 65.3 percent of his passes so far this year.

Now the issue. Perkins gets hit … a lot. Like, a lot, a lot. The offensive line has been inconsistent, he gets hit on many of his runs and, sometimes, he just makes risky decisions. In the fourth quarter of the Old Dominion win, Perkins attempted to pick up an errant snap, instead of just falling on it. He thought he had time to pick the ball up and make a play. He didn’t. Instead, he took a big hit and had to come out of the game for a play. Virginia takes a major step back without him in the game, and Perkins needs to be extra cognizant of protecting himself.

To add to the problem, the Cavaliers’ backup quarterback, Brennan Armstrong, is on crutches and in a walking boot.

Can Perkins be enough to make Saturday afternoon genuinely competitive? With the Irish favored by 11.5, could he force a one-possession game?

With Perkins making plays and the defense playing up to its potential, I think Virginia can hang with Notre Dame. If Perkins struggles or gets hurt, or the defense misses tackles and gives up big plays, the Irish will cover easily. I think there’s still a big gap in terms of talent and depth between Virginia and Notre Dame, and in the end, I think that’s the difference Saturday. The ACC is 0-20 all-time against ranked Irish teams in South Bend, and I don’t expect that to change.