And In That Corner … High-scoring Virginia looks to outpace Notre Dame’s newfound offense

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Notre Dame and Virginia do not have a long history like the No. 9 Irish (8-1) do with a few ACC teams, nor do they have an intriguing one a la Virginia Tech’s role in recent Notre Dame seasons. But that could change this weekend, with the Cavaliers (6-3) closing in on their third winning season in four years, the only exception being a 5-5 showing during 2020’s chaos.

Virginia boasts the country’s best offense in terms of total yards, No. 4 in yards per play and No. 11 in points per game. Irish head coach Brian Kelly wasted no time Monday before acknowledging the clear worries such an attack presents.

“Obviously, going on the road against an explosive offensive football team,” he said. “I don’t want to bore you with the facts other than it’s the number-one total offensive team in the country playing at home after a week off. It will be a great challenge for our football team, in particular, our defense.”

But offense is not exactly what Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall has made his career on, so to get a better idea of how this version of Virginia came to be, let’s turn to Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, before we get to Saturday’s 7:30 ET kickoff on ABC ...

DF: I don’t remember Bronco Mendenhall being an offensive wonder at BYU. His background is entirely defensive, tracing back to playing defensive back at Oregon State. But increasingly, his Virginia time seems marked by offenses. That has reached a new peak this year, averaging 38.9 points per game and 7.18 yards per play. Is this a result of personnel more than anything else, or has Mendenhall changed his approach given modern trends of college football?

MB: It’s a combination of both factors. Mendenhall has always had progressive ideas on offense. When Taysom Hill was his quarterback at BYU, he and offensive coordinator Robert Anae began developing some of what they’re running now at Virginia.

When they first got to Charlottesville, they installed a ridiculously up-tempo offense, a no-huddle attack designed to keep opposing defenses on their heels. Mendenhalleven had an assistant with a stopwatch keeping time between plays in practice to make sure the Cavaliers were always racing to the line. They scrapped that by Year 2.

Now, with the talent of Brennan Armstrong at quarterback and the weapons around him, especially the versatility of players like Keytaon Thompson, they’ve crafted an offense that has its roots in those Taysom Hill-BYU years. Mendenhall recognizes that high-scoring games are the trend in college football and he likes to stay at the head of trends.

Of course, he still prides himself on defense and I recently asked him if I was correct assuming, given his druthers, that he’d rather win games 13-7 then 48-42. His response? “I’d rather win 13-6.”

That offense this year hinges on junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, he of 27 touchdown passes and wait, my math must be wrong, he’s averaging 395.2 passing yards per game?!?! Yeah, Mendenhall has leaned into his approach. The first question about Armstrong has to tie to if he will play after appearing to injure his ribs two weeks ago. I get the sense he will, or at least will start the game and go from there. You know better than I do. What sense do you get about Armstrong’s status on Saturday?

Really hard to tell. I think — and my opinion doesn’t matter one iota — that Virginia should shut Armstrong down this week to make sure he’s healthy for the “more important” games against Pittsburgh and rival Virginia Tech. (I say more important because the Cavaliers can win the ACC Coastal Division championship with wins in those games.) But that’s not the way Mendenhall or Armstrong is wired.

Even late in the fourth quarter of blowout losses to North Carolina and Wake Forest, Mendenhall left Armstrong in the game because he said it was important to send the message to the team that they never quit on a game. I thought he was nuts but then watching their comeback win at Louisville, I can at least see the mentality in action.

When I asked Mendenhall about it Monday, he said that he’s “planning” to have Armstrong at quarterback and that even if he can’t practice all week, the Cavaliers would still play him Saturday night if he’s able to go. So, while the smart play would be to rest him, I think there’s a good chance Armstrong tries to play Saturday night.

That ribs injury, how will it change Armstrong’s game? On one hand, a mere throwing motion could be aggravating, and he does that 45 times per game. On the other, scaling back his nine rushing attempts per game should be conceivable, though that could cut into red-zone efficiency.

Armstrong threw one pass after the injury in the BYU game. It was woefully underthrown and picked off. Of course, he’s coming off an open date and, I’m assuming, will be treated by the medical staff with something to limit his pain if he plays Saturday. If he can’t physically throw the ball the way he normally does, I don’t think he plays.

Running it is another story. He suffered a knee injury in Game 2 against Illinois and Virginia essentially took designed quarterback runs out of its playbook for a few weeks until he got healthy. I would think, if he plays, Virginia would be wise to avoid calling his number running the ball and that Armstrong would be coached to slide or get out of bounds quickly if he does scramble.

My greatest wonder with Armstrong’s injury is if he takes a hit and misses even just a series, will Virginia’s offense completely stall? Backup Jay Woolfolk has hardly seen any action. Brian Kelly suggested Monday that Notre Dame might prepare to face a Wildcat offense. First of all, I like good football, so I hope none of this comes to fruition. I hope Armstrong is 100 percent on Saturday night. But if not, what should I expect to see from the Cavaliers offense?

A year ago, Armstrong missed the Wake Forest game due to a concussion. Virginia used a quarterback-by-committee approach that never really had a chance once it fell behind. That game, the Cavaliers used Ira Armstead and Keytaon Thompson as Wildcat-style quarterbacks and veteran backup Lindell Stone in passing situations. The difference this year is, the coaches have a much higher level of confidence in Jay Woolfolk, despite his lack of experience. They consider him a true No. 2 quarterback who is capable of running essentially the same gameplan the team would prepare for Armstrong. Mendenhall mentioned Monday what a major advantage that is. The offense can prepare for the same plan and they don’t have to decide who is playing quarterback until just before kickoff. Thompson, Armstead and Jacob Rodriguez running the ball on direct snaps and sweeps has been a big part of the offense all year and figures to be again Saturday night.

 

Virginia gives up 30.8 points per game. Even if removing the 66 points given up to BYU two weeks ago, it gives up 26.4 points per game. To my eye, the Cavaliers defense is vulnerable to both the run and the pass, and at this point, the Irish may be competent in both regards, quite the shift from a month ago. Let’s assume Notre Dame will score at least 30 points, as it has in its last four games against defenses all better than Virginia’s, even if some of them were not necessarily good. How would you anticipate the Irish finding the bulk of that success?

Virginia’s defense, for the second year in a row, has been susceptible to big plays, by the run or the pass. The Cavaliers have even switched up scheme-wise to play much more 3-3-5, dropping eight defenders into coverage. The problem has been, that approach generates little to no pressure on opposing passers, takes away from the run defense and, honestly, hasn’t really cut down on big plays. The problem for most of the season has been missed assignments and alignment errors. But last time out, at BYU, Virginia missed a stunning number of tackles. It’s crazy to say after a game where they gave up 66 points and more than 700 yards of total offense, but in some ways, the defense was better in that game then it’s been. It had guys in the right spots for most of the night, but the missed tackles rendered that largely irrelevant.

I anticipate Notre Dame having success running the ball with Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, and that those two will have chances for some big plays.

I don’t mean to only knock the Cavaliers, but with Armstrong’s injury, the threat of Virginia’s offense becomes as much a hypothetical as anything, and that defense’s struggles are decidedly not hypothetical. Do you think it can pull off this upset on Saturday?

I think you’re being fair. With a healthy Armstrong, the answer would be yes. If he’s anything less than at his best, it becomes no. I do believe the defense is capable of more than it’s shown, and Virginia has been an outstanding home team the past few seasons. Still, if I were a betting man – and I am – I’d take Notre Dame in this one.