Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense seeks ‘revenge’ at Virginia, if not against Virginia

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When Notre Dame gave up 564 yards to North Carolina two weeks ago, it did not panic. The Tar Heels offense is too good to be completely shut down, and the Irish (8-1) understood that, instead looking to limit the explosiveness of Sam Howell’s effectiveness. Given Notre Dame won, 44-34, one might think that was a success.

But to hear the No. 9 Irish the last two weeks, they were hardly pleased with that result. Shutting down Navy — more so than any Brian Kelly team ever had — did not render those worries moot, either.

“It’s the fundamentals, communicating, making sure you’re on your guy, and then block destruction and tackle,” fifth-year linebacker Drew White said on Tuesday after answering a few questions about playing through a torn PCL. “A lot of carryover from what we needed to fix against UNC, so for our defense, [this weekend] is kind of like a revenge game. We’re trying to sharpen our tools.”

No one expected  Notre Dame to discuss a revenge game as it travels to Virginia (7:30 ET; ABC), particularly not since the Irish are 3-0 against the Cavaliers all-time, including wins in 2015 and 2019.

Notre Dame’s defense is without its best player, its safety net, its constant threat in junior safety Kyle Hamilton, yet its standard has not dropped. The fact of the matter is, despite a first-year coordinator, the Irish defense has kept Notre Dame on track to a New Year’s Six bowl more than the offense has. When Jack Coan & Co. could not put away Toledo or Purdue as may have been expected, the defense held them to 42 combined points.

The memories of the fourth quarter at Wisconsin should still be fresh enough to not need much recap, the Irish defense providing more highlights in the final frame than the offense managed all day. And as “hurry-up Jack” spurred that offense to greater heights starting with the fourth quarter at Virginia Tech, the defense has not fallen off, no matter North Carolina’s 34 points. The Tar Heels average 37.3 points per game for a reason.

But that didn’t ease White’s frustrations. Stopping Navy gave him an idea of what would, though, even if Notre Dame didn’t spend much time this week watching that film.

“For Virginia prep, a lot of the Navy film isn’t going to help,” White said. “On the other side, the fundamentals, the same things that kind of brought success against Navy, tackling, block destruction, communication, all of that. Doing your job, that is going to carry over.

“That’s what we focused on against Navy, the fundamentals. We have to continue sharpening that.”

If Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong plays through a ribs injury, those fundamentals will become crucial. North Carolina star Sam Howell took 15 carries for 131 yards two weeks ago (sacks adjusted), flummoxing the Irish defensive line even as it created constant pressure. A healthy Armstrong could prove even more difficult, with 58 carries for 414 yards this season, a 7.14 yards per rush average (sacks adjusted).

“He extends plays, let’s start there,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “His ability to extend plays, it makes him extremely dangerous.”

Not just extending plays, but extending plays in a reverse manner than most quarterbacks, given Armstrong is left-handed. It is a small thing, most would say a negligible difference, but White did make sure to mention it.

“He’s a really good thrower. Lefty, he can sling it,” White said. “Overall, his ability to extend plays and break tackles and scramble, and then whether it’s using his feet or buying time to get a receiver open, that’s definitely his strongest attribute.”

And Armstrong has plenty of receivers to choose from, perhaps more than any other passer in the country.

“The ball can go anywhere,” Kelly said. “So it’s not like we can roll our coverage or drop somebody down and have our eyes to a particular player. That’s really what makes this offense so difficult to defend because if he does extend the play, these guys are all dangerous and it’s not looking to one guy. It’s four, and that’s problematic.

The Irish rolled their coverage toward USC star Drake London to limit the explosiveness of his inevitable production. They dropped someone down to keep potent North Carolina slot receiver Josh Downs in check. They can’t rely on such coverage designs to slow Virginia. In that respect, Kelly compared these Cavaliers to last year’s Tar Heels.

Without Hamilton, Notre Dame shut out that North Carolina in the second half to win 31-17 on the way to the Playoff. How? Six sacks disrupted Howell’s timing with his fleet of targets. Ade Ogundeji led the way with a pair of sacks as he gave vain chase of the Irish sacks record of 13.5 held by Justin Tuck.

With 8.5 sacks through nine games, current junior end Isaiah Foskey still has an outside chance at that mark, on pace for 12 sacks in 13 games. A surge toward that mark Saturday night could serve a few purposes.

“We need our D-line to pressure the quarterback,” White said. “We need our DBs and linebackers to cover. We’re going to count on all 11 guys to make sure we stop the Virginia offense.”

Notre Dame is not conjuring motivation out of thin air when the thought of a revenge game comes up. The revenge may be at Virginia, but it is not necessarily against Virginia. It is simply against a dynamic offense, the best attack the Irish will face this year.

And if Armstrong does not play, or if a Foskey hit sidelines him — “If he is playing, cleanly, we want to bring him down to the ground,” Kelly said Thursday. — then those fundamentals shown against Navy can be honed, all the same.