Who, and What, to Watch?

A handful of players, developments, and historical markers to monitor during today’s matchup between Notre Dame and Virginia at Scott Stadium.

1 – The Backup RBs, Starting: Among the highlights in Notre Dame’s season-opening celebration at Texas’ expense was the production of the team’s No. 2 (C.J. Prosise) and No. 3 (Josh Adams) running backs. The pair combined for 147 yards and two scores in support of injured starter Tarean Folston while also affording No. 4 runner Dexter Williams to get feet wet. Williams’ pair of rushing first downs (on 3rd Down, no less) capped a successful evening for the new generation Irish backfield.

But there were likely mistakes we didn’t see. Mistakes other than the pass protection communication error between Prosise and quarterback Malik Zaire that resulted in a sack. And mistakes that could have been relevant but instead were rendered academic due to the game’s margin, such as Prosise’s fumbled handoff (he recovered) to begin the fourth quarter.

Inefficiencies by the trio will doubtless be magnified against a host Virginia squad playing with nothing to lose, in a stadium that helped the Cavaliers upset No. 23 Louisville last season in mid-September, two weeks after the heavy-underdog Wahoos took No. 7 UCLA to the wire. 

Pass protection and ball security are as crucial to a young runner’s success as is the ability to turn the corner.

2 – No Turnovers, No Chance: Notre Dame has played 17 turnover-free contests during the 66-game Brian Kelly era. Their record over those outings? 17-0, of course, but just five of the 17 occurred in road tilts (three of which remain contained to the nearly error-free 2012 season).

If Notre Dame protects the football against Virginia, e.g., they drive and score, drive and attempt a field goal, or drive and punt, the Cavaliers have NO chance of recording an upset. Should the Irish perform similarly with but one turnover, Virginia is also unlikely to prevail as the Irish are 15-2 under Kelly when committing a lone turnover with losses to Alabama, naturally, and Louisville, a 2014 contest the Irish should have won or tied in the final seconds.

But once the turnover tally hits the magical # of 2, the odds of defeat increase exponentially. Notre Dame is 7-6 in two turnover games under Kelly and 7-12 when committing three or more.

Protect the ball; leave Charlottesville at 2-0.

3 – Nothing Bland About Him: Notre Dame’s season-opening win over Texas was decidedly one-sided with the exception of a preternaturally talented rookie linebacker on the opposite side of scrimmage – five-star prospect Malik Jefferson, whose 9 tackles (2.5 for loss) were often of the eye-opening variety.

Virginia’s version of Malik Jefferson, aka, the opposing defender to avoid this week, is true sophomore Quin Blanding. A five-star prospect and the 15th-best overall player per Scout.com’s 2014 rankings, Blanding produced a sterling rookie campaign, finishing with 123 tackles (more than Jaylon Smith, for the sake of comparison) with three picks and six passes defended. He posted 10 stops including one for loss last week at UCLA.

There aren’t many game-changers in Charlottesville this fall, but the future pro Blanding is among the nation’s best young stars.

4 – Do You Have to Let Them Linger? – There’s always one.

One game per season in which a favored Notre Dame team allows its foe to hang around and make a game of what should have been a walkover win: Pittsburgh 2010; Pittsburgh and Wake Forest 2011; Boston College 2012; Purdue 2013 and, of course, Navy 2014.
Five of the six examples above were played outside of South Bend vs. inferior to vastly inferior foes. The same criteria apply today in Charlottesville. Will Notre Dame’s killer instinct kick in as it did during away-from-home beatings administered to Boston College and Army (2010), Purdue and Maryland (2011), Navy and Miami (2012), and Air Force (2013)?
The longer a home underdog stays within shouting distance, the harder it is to put him down, late.

5 – Malik’s Moment: No, not that kind of moment, as Malik Zaire has already shown the college football world what he’s capable of as a dialed-in, fully confident dual-threat. Rather, the type of moment that occurs for every QB when adversity strikes: does he blink, or face it head on?

And what if it strikes when the Irish are down 10-3 early and Zaire throws his first career interception in enemy territory? Or what if he and the Irish find themselves tied in an unexpected thriller midway through the third quarter, with 3rd-and-8 pending deep in their own end?

How will Notre Dame’s heretofore unblemished triggerman handle a defense and opposing fan base fueled by a new level of confidence? At some point this season, Zaire will have to answer that question.

Will it be Saturday afternoon?

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