Prister’s Preview: ND vs. Virginia

How well ND’s offensive line handles Jon Tenuta’s “exotics” in the pass rush will go a long way toward determining the outcome against a Virginia team dangerous at home.

Virginia head coach

Mike London (6th year at Virginia, 8th overall) – London, 54, led Richmond (his alma mater) to the 2008 FCS national championship, the first of a successful two-year run that saw the Spiders win 24 games.

That propelled the former Virginia defensive coordinator into the job with the Cavaliers, where he replaced Al Groh in 2010. By year two, London led Virginia to an 8-5 season. But it’s been downhill since then. The Cavaliers have lost 28 of their last 39 games under London, although they did go from two victories in 2013 to five last year.

Key personnel

• FS-Quin Blanding (Soph.) – The ACC’s defensive rookie of the year (123 tackles, six PBU, three interceptions) was the only freshman in the country to lead his team in tackles. He was second among all tacklers in the conference. He had 10 tackles in the opener against UCLA.
• CB-Maurice Canady (Sr.) – Forms the other half of the one-two secondary punch with Blanding. A third-team all-ACC selection as a strong safety before moving to cornerback. Top ball-hawk in Cavalier secondary with three interceptions and 12 passes broken up in ’14.
• DT-David Dean (Sr.) – Top run-stuffer along Virginia’s defensive line with a team-high-returning eight stops behind the line of scrimmage. Second highest tackle total (40) among returning defensive players. Equaled his sack total of ’14 in the season-opener against UCLA. Lone captain on the defensive side of the football.
• QB-Matt Johns (Jr.) – The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder played a solid game in Virginia’s season-opening loss to UCLA, completing 21-of-35 for 238 yards with a late touchdown toss to RB Taquan Mizzell and an interception. Shared the job with Greyson Lambert last year, but won the job in the spring, which prompted Lambert’s transfer to Georgia. Johns completed a modest 54.9 percent of his 162 passes in ’14 with an 8-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Enters the game with four career starts.
• RB-Taquan Mizzell (Soph.) – Has been a greater threat in the passing game than as a runner. Caught 39 passes last year for 271 yards while gaining 280 on the ground with one touchdown and a long run of 16 yards. Managed just 45 yards on 16 carries last week against UCLA, but scored Virginia’s only touchdown on a 19-yard reception late in the game. Caught eight passes for 100 yards against the Bruins.
• K-Ian Frye (Sr.) – A real weapon for the Cavaliers with 22-of-27 field goals in ’14, including 5-of-7 from 40-49 yards. Got off to a fast start last weekend with a 3-of-3 effort, including a 42-yarder.

What Virginia does well

• Defensive line play: This is one of the best units up front that the Irish will play in 2015. Defensive end Mike Moore (son of former Cavs QB Shawn Moore, who played against the Irish in ’89), and tackles David Dean, Andrew Brown and Donte Wilkins form a barrier up front that helped Virginia finish 18th in rush defense (120.7 ypg.), 28th in total defense (353.2 ypg.) and 32nd in scoring defense (24.1 ppg.), the latter of which was a 9.2-point improvement per game.
• Protect the quarterback: Led by junior right tackle Eric Smith, the Cavaliers allowed just 16 sacks in 2014, which tied for 18th in the country. Offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim moved on to VMI as head coach. Former Notre Dame offensive line coach Dave Borbely has replaced him. QB Matt Johns was sacked once against UCLA in the ’15 opener.
• Rush the quarterback: Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has made a career out of bringing pressure from beyond his defensive line. In 2014, linebackers Max Valles (9), Henry Coley (8) and Daquan Romero (2) combined for 19 of the Cavaliers’ 34 sacks. All three are gone. Defensive tackle David Dean recorded Virginia’s only sack last week against UCLA.

Where Virginia struggles

• Red zone: Virginia tied for 116th in the country last year in touchdown percentage in the red zone (46.9; 23-of-49). The Cavaliers picked up where they left off in the ’15 season-opener when only one-of-three red-zone appearances resulted in a touchdown, and that came trailing by 25 with less than four minutes remaining.
• Scoring points: Virginia hasn’t been in the top 80 nationally in scoring since 2010 and it has been 11 years since the Cavaliers were among the nation’s top 50. Virginia scored the most points of the Mike London era last year, averaging 25.8 per game, but it was 19.8 in 2013 while managing just 16 points in last week’s opener. Virginia’s only touchdown against the Bruins came with 3:29 remaining.
• Running the football: The Cavaliers haven’t averaged better than 3.7 yards per carry since 2011. Last year, the per-game average dipped 19 yards (to 138) from ’13. Virginia averaged just 2.9 yards per carry (34-for-98) in the season-opening loss to UCLA.

Kelly’s Call

“That first home game for Virginia – playing Notre Dame – they will have a high, high will to win, and we’re going to have to match and exceed that if we want to come out of Charlottesville with a victory. We know that Virginia plays extremely well at home. This comes down to our preparation, and then meeting and exceeding our opponent’s will to win.

“Defensively, you’ve got Coach (Mike) Archer and Coach (Jon) Tenuta, who have been around the game of football a long time and they know defense. They’ve got an answer for everything that you’re doing offensively.”

Odds and ends

This is Notre Dame’s first football game in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It will be the 36th state that has played host to an Irish football game…Former Notre Dame assistants on the current Virginia staff include associate head coach/defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, defensive line coach Jappy Oliver and offensive line coach Dave Borbely…Virginia quarterback Matt Johns and Irish running back Josh Adams both played their prep football at Central Bucks High School South in Warrington, Pa… Virginia is the only team in the country to play three ranked teams in September (UCLA, Notre Dame, Boise State)…With its error-free performance in turnovers against Texas last Saturday, the Irish have opened the season without coughing up the football three years in a row. They did the same in 2013 versus Temple and 2014 against Rice. Notre Dame is 17-0 under Brian Kelly when not committing a turnover…Prior to the Texas game, it had been 11 seasons since Notre Dame produced two touchdown drives of at least 90 yards in a game. That came in a 49-28 victory over Purdue on Oct. 1, 2005. Both of those drives were capped by one-yard touchdown plunges by Rashon Powers-Neal…With his two rushing touchdowns vs. Texas, Josh Adams became the first freshman runner to score two touchdowns in a game since Darius Walker did it against Pittsburgh in 2004. Adams also became the first freshman running back to score a touchdown on his first carry at Notre Dame Stadium since Art Best snapped off a 56-yard run against Purdue in 1972…This is just the second meeting between Notre Dame and Virginia. The two teams squared off in the 1989 Kickoff Classic in Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. with the Irish winning, 36-13. It marked the first game since the Irish claimed the ’88 national championship and the first-ever Notre Dame game played in August.

Prister’s breakdown

There’s no denying the precarious combination of five straight true-road-game losses by Notre Dame, Virginia’s 5-2 record at Scott Stadium last year, and Mike London’s record of success at home versus ranked teams.

Last September, No. 21-ranked Louisville became the most recent top 25 team to fall to the Cavaliers at home, and two months later, Notre Dame lost to the Cardinals in South Bend. Other ranked visitors to Scott Stadium who have succumbed to Virginia include No. 22 Miami in 2010 and No. 12 Georgia Tech in 2011.

Penn State, which would go on to win eight games in 2012, also fell to the Cavaliers, as did eight-win BYU to open the 2013 campaign. Louisville won nine games last season.

To be sure, there have been plenty of other teams to visit Charlottesville that came away with a victory. In fact, the Cavaliers lost 22 times in a five-year span at the Scott and are 18-18 at home under London.

Notre Dame has fallen to USC (by 35), Arizona State (by 24), Florida State (by four), Stanford (by seven) and Pittsburgh (by seven) since the last time they came away from a road venue with a victory, and that was at Air Force in October 2013. All the red flags of danger will be flying when Notre Dame sets foot into Scott Stadium for the first time.

One could argue that this is a much different Notre Dame team than the one that lost five of its last six regular-season games in ’14. Nineteen players entered the Texas game last week with starting experience, and the manhandling of the Longhorns reminded more of the winning effort against LSU to close the season than the November collapse.

The most interesting storyline this weekend is the battle of wits between Brian Kelly and Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who applied his maximum-pressure defensive approach with the Irish in 2008-09 before moving on to North Carolina State and now Virginia, where he’s joined forces with former LSU head coach Mike Archer and two other former Irish assistants (Jappy Oliver and Dave Borbely).

Tenuta turned his troops loose last season and it paid dividends as the Cavaliers finished 18th in the country in rush defense, 28th in total defense and 32nd in scoring defense. He continues to have a stout front – at least against the run – despite the loss of defensive end Eli Harold to the NFL draft a year early.

Tenuta also has a pretty dynamic safety-cornerback duo in Quin Blanding (a former Irish recruit) and Maurice Canady, who should put up more of a challenge than Texas’ Duke Thomas and Dylan Haines did a week ago. Considering how Notre Dame struggled with run blitzes last week, that might be a greater threat than Tenuta’s pass rush, which netted just one sack last week.

UCLA and freshman quarterback Josh Rosen hung up 351 yards on 28-of-37 passing and three touchdowns in its 34-16 home victory, which was a 25-point game until the final minutes, but just a 17-9 deficit at the half. The loss of five of his top six tacklers also showed itself against UCLA.

While Tenuta got most of his sack production out of a veteran linebacker corps a year ago, he can’t count on a single returning starter from the unit this year. If one were to point to a match-up that could determine the outcome of this game, it would be Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line and how well it picks up Tenuta’s “exotics” in tandem with how well third-game starter Malik Zaire reads those pressures.

Notre Dame has its own aggressive coordinator in Brian VanGorder, and he, too, will try to rattle 6-foot-5 quarterback Matt Johns, who will be making just his fifth career start. Johns can move for a lanky guy, but if Notre Dame’s rush wreaks havoc like it did last week against the Longhorns, Johns won’t be mobile enough.

Notre Dame won’t have the luxury of playing against an offensive line with two true freshman as it did against Texas. In fact, three starters return on a Virginia line that allowed just 16 sacks a year ago, led by right tackle Eric Smith.

Third-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is under fire in Charlottesville in part because the Wahoos struggle to score in the red zone. In fact, they ranked 116th in touchdown percentage once moving inside the opposition’s 20, and explosive plays have been very difficult to come by.

While Johns has a greater ability to get the ball downfield to senior wide receiver Canaan Severin than Texas’ Tyrone Swoopes did with his inexperienced receivers, it was running back Taquan Mizzell who led all receivers against UCLA with eight catches for 100 yards. The guy they call “Smoke” had a long run of 16 yards all of last year and a mere seven-yarder against the Bruins when he rushed for just 45 yards on 16 carries.

If it’s a close game, the edge goes to Virginia kicker Ian Frye, who was 22-of-27 last year and a perfect 3-of-3 last week, including a 42-yarder. Field position could turn dramatically when punters Nicholas Conte (50.5-yard average, 56 long) and Tyler Newsome (three of four downed inside the 20) come into play.

On paper, this shouldn’t be close and it may not be. Virginia, as we said with Texas last week, should not reach the 20-point mark, and Notre Dame should be just as capable of rolling offensively as the Bruins did last week.

That being said, crazy things happen in Scott Stadium, and we anticipate a few, but not enough to prevent the Irish from opening 2-0 for just the seventh time since Lou Holtz left South Bend 19 seasons ago.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 11 1/2; over-under 48
Game-Day Prediction: Notre Dame 30, Virginia 16
2015 Season Record: 1-0 straight up; 0-1 vs. points; 1-0 over-under

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