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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, September 28, 2019 5:30 pm

Halftime: Virginia 17, Notre Dame 14

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Virginia came into today's matchup against Notre Dame with one of the better defenses statistically in the country. On the first Irish play from scrimmage, the Cavaliers brought the house, forcing QB Ian Book out of bounds for a five-yard loss. 

That portended a rough day for the Notre Dame offense, but instead, the Irish have rebounded and have found smoother sailing than expected when they have the ball. Book has done a much better job (though he's still not perfect) at remaining in the pocket and facing the rush as it bears down on him. Virginia, which led the nation in sacks coming in, has brought plenty of pressure, but the Irish have generally picked up the blitzes and Book has done a good job of keeping his eyes downfield as he moves his feet. That improvement and the good work by the offensive line helped him complete his first eight throws.

The Irish haven't been particularly explosive on offense, but they've done a much better job than in previous weeks of balancing the run and the pass. Virginia came in giving up just 2.2 yards per carry, but Notre Dame has gotten consistently good push up front and averaged close to four yards per rush if you eliminate Book's first five-yard loss. Again, that goes back to an offensive line that is starting to find its footing. It also helps that redshirt freshman C'Bo Flemister sprinted for an 11-yard touchdown, breaking several tackles along the way in maybe his best career run with Notre Dame. Someone besides Tony Jones Jr. needs to step up with Jafar Armstrong out and maybe it will be Flemister.

Defensively, the Irish have been a mixed bag so far today. They had some big lapses on Virginia's first drive, which ended in a touchdown. Julian Okwara was out of position on a pass and ended up surrendering a 43-yard gain and then Paul Moala left a receiver alone in the end zone to go chase quarterback Bryce Perkins, who simply lofted the ball over Moala's head to that receiver, Joe Reed for a touchdown. 

Otherwise, however, the Irish did a relatively good job of keeping Virginia in front of them, at least until the end of the half. Perkins has been terrific, completing 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns, but he hasn't been any kind of rushing threat. He's a talented player, but if Notre Dame can make him a one-dimensional passer, as it has done so far, the Irish will probably win this game. I say probably, because Perkins has made some incredible throws, including a 16-yard touchdown pass to Hasise DuBois at the end of the first half that was directly on the money to give the Cavaliers the lead. The ND defensive line has been getting outstanding push on run plays and the Cavaliers, who have struggled on the ground all season have negative-2 yards rushing so far. 

The biggest potential issue on defense has been the absence of defensive end Daelin Hayes. The senior suffered a shoulder injury to the same shoulder he hurt in high school and has not returned to the game since the middle of the first quarter. He's been one of Notre Dame's better defensive players this year, flying around off the edge and creating havoc. If he's out for a while that's a significant blow.

I still think the Irish are the better team, but this is obviously a fight. Virginia hasn't been intimidated and has indeed been extremely fired up across the entire sideline when it makes a big play. The Irish are trailing at home, a rare occurrence in recent years, and will go into the second half needing to tighten up to come out with a win.

dsinn@jg.net