Please take a moment to appreciate that the work of art seen below is still Will Fuller’s Twitter header.
What’s Their Deal?
The Hoos are led by senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who transferred in from a community college after BREAKING HIS NECK at Arizona State (incredibly, the two broken vertebrae healed in a neck brace after Perkins opted to forgo surgery to keep his football career alive). Perkins, the team’s leading rusher, is more a better version of what the Irish saw in games one and two than Jake Fromm — last year, the only other player in the nation with 2,600 passing yards and 900 rushing yards was Kyler Murray. That being said, the offense (currently 80th in SP+) is forced to over-rely on Perkins’ improvisational skills due to lack of talent at running back (relatable) and an unreliable vertical passing game. Their receivers are dependable, but a so-so offensive line makes the emergence of a gamebreaking ground attack unlikely. That, plus Perkins’ struggles pushing the ball down field, significantly hamper the offense’s explosiveness.
Where this team really hangs their hat is on the defensive side of the ball, unsurprising for a Bronco Mendenhall-led squad. Despite losing two all-ACC pieces to graduation, this unit sits at #18 in SP+, largely thanks to a strong secondary that will provide a test for Ian Book and his receiving corps for the second week in a row. In the preseason I picked their front seven as a potential weakness — they returned no proven pass rushers and weren’t very good at stopping the run in 2018 — but they’re tied for the FBS lead with 20 sacks and are giving up an impossibly slim 2.17 yards per carry (against mediocre competition, but still). Oops, shoulda given Bronco the benefit of the doubt.
On its face, this looks like a team that’s benefited from being on a slight uptick while the ACC swoons, and there’s at least a little truth to that. But they’re legitimately stout on defense and feature a proven playmaker at quarterback, which is half the battle. They struggled with a subpar Florida State, and even spotted Old Dominion 17 points before winning with 28 unanswered, but they’re a top 20 team for a reason, and are in the driver’s seat in the ACC Coastal.
One Scary Man: CB Bryce Hall
Jamie Uyeyama over at Irish Sports Daily describes Virginia’s other Bryce as “their Julian Love,” which is good enough for me. Last year’s numbers were eye-popping: 50.5 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss (including 2 sacks), 2 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 22 pass breakups. That’s a lot of havoc for a corner, and especially for a former two-star recruit. He’ll almost certainly be matched up against Chase Claypool, which should be very fun.
A Few Things I Hate About You
- Uncool that they followed up the most hilarious loss in college basketball history by winning a title, but whatever, doesn’t cancel out the fact that you lost to a 16 seed. By 20. Go Retrievers!
- It’s hard to guess what Malik Zaire’s tenure at ND would have looked like if it wasn’t for that devastating 2015 injury in Charlottesville. Maybe he would have had a fruitful career, and maybe not. But that day pretty much sealed his fate, and sowed the seeds for a quarterback controversy that would help derail the 2016 season. Boo.
- I reluctantly took a visit as a high school senior expecting to think the university would be interesting enough to mark down as a stretch backup to ND. Left the tour early and didn’t bother applying. What can I say, Jeffersonian architecture just doesn’t do it for me on a college campus.
What to Expect
The offense should get a boost with the return of Michael Young, who’s officially back on the depth chart this week. That’s a welcome addition against a secondary like this one, but I expect Ian Book to play well again after last Saturday’s time spent in the cauldron that is Sanford Stadium. Virginia will bring the heat with a variety of blitzes, but the pass rush should hold up fine as long as Book doesn’t make mental errors and scramble right into the pressure. Whether the Irish will be able to run the ball? Well, your guess is as good as mine, though Jahmir Smith is also set to return.
On the flip side, Clark Lea will be zeroed in on Bryce Perkins. The dual-threat quarterback will certainly ad-lib his way into several chunk plays on the ground, but Alohi Gilman and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah should be in a position to spy on Perkins and limit that scrambling as much as possible. In four games, he’s already thrown four picks and taken seven sacks — is this the game the Irish pass rush finally delivers?? Against this offensive line, I say yes. I also think the Irish secondary wins most of their battles and grabs one, maybe two, interceptions. Asmar Bilal and Drew White both looked as good as they ever have against the Dawgs, and Virginia’s rushing attack can’t hold a candle to Georgia’s. Keep Perkins in check (easy peasey, right?) and everything else falls into place.
Anyone who tells you the Irish don’t still have the world to play for is lying or dumb or is doing this wrong. Playoff chances aside — and they are still alive, if on life support, though I wouldn’t advise getting too worked up about that this year — this team can still be great. Brian Kelly knows that, we know that, and the team has to know that. Just ask Khalid Kareem. We’re certainly approaching put up or shut up territory for this team’s leaders, with Notre Dame’s two premier rivals/enemies looming in the next month.
But with a truly abysmal Bowling (Van) Green in wait next week, there’s no looking past the Cavaliers, who will come into South Bend ready for one of their program’s biggest games in recent memory, and maybe ever. It’s worth asking if the Irish will be worn down after a physical battle that nearly lasted to the final whistle. But there’s no reason to think ND won’t be ready for their best shot, not a week after being ready for Georgia’s. Irish with a statement win, 30-14.
Play ’em Out
Richmond’s own Lucy Dacus (also a member of my favorite super-group, boygenius) just released this very good Springsteen cover.