Opponent outlook: What should Irish expect from UVa?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

What's next for the Notre Dame football team?

The University of Virginia opened its season last week with a long trip to the West Coast, and left with a 34-16 loss to UCLA.

Andrew Ramspacher, Virginia football beat writer for The Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Va., provides some answers that may interest Irish fans.

ND Insider: What will Notre Dame coming to Charlottesville mean for the fans?

Andrew Ramspacher: Single-game tickets for this contest were gone in 25 minutes. Sure, that rush included UVA fans, but it's safe to say the Fighting Irish faithful heavily aided the quick sell-out. Notre Dame's presence in Charlottesville means Scott Stadium will get an atmosphere lift, something it needs considering the apathy for the program following three straight losing seasons and no coaching change.

Virginia is plenty used to hosting a marquee opponent, but fans aren't regulars to that coming with a victory. The Wahoos took down a scandal-rocked Penn State in 2012 and then won a rain-delayed game over BYU in 2013, but there's also been losses to Oregon, Clemson, USC and UCLA in recent years.

Saturday's game creates a buzz in town, sure, but I think fans are tired of showing up to see who UVA's playing. They'd like to witness the home team appear relevant, again.

NDI: Why did Virginia have such a hard time running the ball against UCLA (34 carries, 98 yards)?

Ramspacher: It was a heavy dose of Virginia losing its 1-on-1 battles against UCLA’s athletic front, mixed with the Cavaliers’ predictability as an offense.

With the addition of new line coach Dave Borbely (former Notre Dame assistant coach) and running backs coach Chris Beatty, coordinator Steve Fairchild has stressed a recommitment to a power running game since spring ball. Why? No. 1, in Fairchild’s own words, the ‘Hoos were too “finessey” last season, sometimes abandoning the run game to make up for a thin line. This year, however, there’s a good six-to-eight experienced O-linemen Virginia feels confident rotating in to help establish its identity. No. 2, with the addition of Beatty, there’s been a narrow focus of getting the backs to go north-south.

Considering all that preseason talk, Saturday’s opener was a complete dud. UCLA, fully scouted, stacked the box and Virginia came away with 2.9 yards per carry. Of UVA’s 19 first downs, only three came via the run.

The Bruins, with studs like Kenny Clark on the line and Myles Jack at linebacker, knew they could dominate off the ball and they executed.

NDI: How did Matt Johns embrace the role of "the man" at quarterback?

Ramspacher: In the 2014 season opener against UCLA, Johns, thought to be third on the depth chart, came out of nowhere to replace struggling starter Greyson Lambert in a 21-3 game in the second quarter. As Mike London tells it, the UVA head coach asked Johns if he was ready and the then-sophomore told him, “Coach, I’ve been ready for this my whole life.” Johns then went out and led the Cavaliers on a scoring drive that nearly sparked a comeback win.

Even when Johns was a backup, I think embraced his role as “the man.” He’s not incredibly skilled or built — slender 6-foot-5, 210 pounds — but he plays with a ton of energy that the team seems to rally around. That’s good for a program that’s in desperate need of QB stability — see six transfers at the position since 2012.

NDI: Why did the Virginia defense have so much trouble with Josh Rosen? How might they handle a read-option type of QB (like Malik Zaire)?

Ramspacher: As Notre Dame fans might be remember, Jon Tenuta-coordinated defenses are predicated on quarterback pressure (Tenuta was defensive coordinator at Notre Dame 2008-09). If blitzes are getting picked up or if the opposing offensive coordinator is dialing up the right calls, a Tenuta defense can get exposed quickly.

Predictably, Tenuta went after Rosen, a true freshman, a lot, but rarely had success. Rosen, thanks to ideal protection, had a clean pocket to throw from for most of the afternoon and he took full advantage.

In terms of dealing with a read-option QB, Virginia did an OK job of handling those types last season (allowed 72 rushing yards to BYU’s Taysom Hill, 49 to North Carolina’s Marquise Williams), but that was with two senior linebackers leading the charge. Saturday’s challenge against Zaire will truly test the unproven LB duo of Zach Bradshaw and Micah Kiser (a combined two career starts between them).

NDI: What do you know about UVA that you didn't know before the UCLA game?

Ramspacher: The game — score-wise — went about as I expected. However, I figured Virginia would have at least made Rosen move a bit in the pocket. I think that raises a legitimate question: Can the Cavaliers, who no longer have elite edge rushers after Eli Harold and Max Valles left early for last spring’s NFL Draft, bully their way to the quarterback with a D-line that goes 280 pounds, 290, 280 and 265 across the front? If that answer becomes a no, this defense is in serious trouble.

I also learned that this team hasn’t fixed its main offensive issues. Last season, UVA only scored touchdowns on 47 percent of its trips to the red zone. Against the Bruins, it settled for three field goals. I can almost guarantee the Cavaliers will win Saturday’s time of possession battle, but taking the game is doubtful.

Virginia quarterback Matt Johns, left, throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)