SOUTH BEND – For the first time since the end of the 2017 season, Notre Dame enters today's game without the modifier "undefeated" in front of its name. The Irish come in 2-1, in danger of slipping back to .500 if they have any kind of letdown coming off an emotional loss to Georgia in Week 4.
The team poised to take advantage of any Notre Dame lapse in focus can still claim "undefeated" status. That team is 18th-ranked Virginia, which is off to its first 4-0 start since 2004 and has achieved its highest mark in the AP Poll since it was No. 16 in 2007. This is not your older brother's Virginia team, which was usually closer to the basement of the ACC than to the Clemsons and Florida States at the top. The Cavaliers have made significant strides in four years under coach Bronco Mendenhall and would like nothing more than to notch a signature victory over Notre Dame in South Bend. A win for Virginia today would be its first against a top 10 opponent in 13 tries, a streak of futility in big games that dates back to 2005. It's possible that the Cavaliers will be a little starstruck early, but this is a team playing with a ton of confidence.
"I mean, I’m excited for it," Cavaliers defensive tackle Eli Hanback said this week. "Everyone who likes college football or knows anything about it knows who Notre Dame is, the field there and all that stuff that goes along with it, so it is going to be exciting and a cool experience. But then again we’re going to play a football game. We’re not going there to sightsee or anything like that."
The Cavaliers haven't played a murderer's row schedule yet, but they do have decent wins against Pitt, which just beat Central Florida, and Florida State. They also got a scare against Old Dominion last week, falling behind 17-0 before rallying for a 28-17 win. This team has relied on its defense so far, a unit that is giving up just 18 points per game and has racked up 20 sacks, tied for No. 1 in the nation. Its linebackers are fast and active and Notre Dame's offensive line is in for a challenge if the Irish try to pass their way to victory today. LBs Jordan Mack and Charles Snowden have six TFLs each already.
That stratospheric sack total would seem to suggest that Notre Dame should invest heavily in the ground game early. Unfortunately for the Irish, the Cavaliers have been just as stingy against the run, giving up just 2.2 yards per carry, the 11th-best mark in the country. Notre Dame's rushing attack has been hit or miss this season, with the running backs being fairly unproductive (Tony Jones Jr.'s 100-yard performance in Week 1 notwithstanding), but some jet sweeps to wide receivers (and whatever position Avery Davis plays) going for big plays against New Mexico. Expect the Irish to try to get its playmakers the ball in space and see if they pick up some big gains against the stout Cavaliers defense.
If Ian Book does have to beat Virginia with his arm, he'll have to do a better job than he did against Georgia of sticking in the pocket against pressure. The Cavaliers will likely bring plenty of extra rushers, trying to throw Book off his game as Georgia did in the third quarter last week. He has yet to prove he can stand in against the pressure on a consistent basis and he'll keep facing blitzes until he does. That could be a key today if Virginia stuffs the Irish rushing attack, which is getting a boost with the return of redshirt freshman Jahmir Smith from a toe injury.
On defense, the key will be containing dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins. Perkins hasn't been particularly effective as a runner this season, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry, but he's coming of a year in which he ran for 923 yards and nine touchdowns and the threat of the run will be there. Notre Dame's linebackers have made tremendous strides already this season and they will have to be much better than they were against Louisville's Jawon Pass in Week 1. Pass had some huge holes to sprint through on designed quarterback runs and the Irish don't have that kind of margin for error today.
The Irish can still make the College Football Playoff if they finish this season at 11-1. They have to win out to do that and the quest to do that starts today. Back home in South Bend, under a thick blanket of gray clouds in what figures to be ideal football weather, Notre Dame is trying to reset its season and get back on a winning track.