Virginia defense focuses on disrupting Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire
It’s hard to argue with Jon Tenuta’s game plan.
If Irish fans recognize the name, it’s because once upon a time, Tenuta was the embattled defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Now operating in the same role at Virginia, the well-traveled assistant’s strategy heading into last weekend’s season opener against UCLA can be captured in a word:
Then more pressure.
Then, if all goes well, sacks, and turnovers, and a massive statement win.
It was all the more logical an approach, too, given the opponent. UCLA touted a true freshman quarterback making his first career start — a kid who, when confronted with waves of violent chaos, might wilt rather than rally.
Outside of practice, Josh Rosen had never seen a collegiate defense. Throw some blitzes at him, Tenuta must have reasoned, and the kid would crumble at their feet.
When the smoke cleared inside the Rose Bowl, however, Rosen was standing tall.
“You want to have a chance to affect the quarterback’s ability to not just stand in the pocket and have all day to throw, with rushers, with stunts, with schemes,” Virginia head coach Mike London said. “And they executed in a way that allowed him (Rosen) to be highly efficient. And we could not get to him and apply enough pressure to affect those throws.
“The combination of us not being able to get to him and the fact that he played a very good game was something to their credit.”
Here’s a breakdown of UCLA’s credit, in terms of concrete facts:
351 passing yards.
Three passing touchdowns.
Eleven receivers who caught at least one pass.
One sack allowed.
How’s that for a freshman quarterback?
“They did an excellent job protecting their quarterback,” London said. “And you could tell very early on that the scheme was to get it out quickly, distribute it to his perimeter players, running backs, and Rosen played an excellent game. I’ve got to give him credit. He was accurate, and it was hard to get to him.
“You try to affect the throwing lanes, the passing lanes with pressure. But I thought he did an outstanding job of being able to handle the pressure.”
If a true freshman (albeit an enormously celebrated one) dissected Virginia’s defense in his first career start, what is Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire capable of on Saturday?
That’s the question hanging like a storm cloud over Tenuta and Co. this week, as Virginia prepares to rebound from its season-opening 36-14 defeat by hosting Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon.
And like Rosen, Zaire is a relatively unknown enemy. The 6-foot, 222-pound quarterback has started just two games for Notre Dame, though the most recent was a near-perfect performance in the win over Texas that included 19 completions in 22 attempts, 315 passing yards and three touchdowns.
If Tenuta dials up more pressure, Zaire — a master scrambler — won’t hesitate to make the Cavaliers pay.
“He’s an accomplished runner,” London said. “We all know that he can run the ball. He presents that threat. Not only do they have plays designed for him being the primary ball carrier, but they also have plays to get him out of the pocket on the perimeter.
“He’s such a focal point of their offense that it’s going to be important that we develop a game plan to understanding that his legs and his arm are things that they very much rely on.”
That arm, however, is not to be overlooked. Zaire proved that against Texas, expertly blending quick-hitters and deep routes like an artist mixes paint.
For Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, it wasn’t a surprise. More like an inevitability.
“We knew what he was capable of, but he has certainly developed in the different kind of balls that he can throw,” Kelly said. “You saw his ability to push the ball down the field vertically. He can work tough passes across the field. He can work bubble throws, dig routes.
“I think what’s most impressive is the different kind of throws that he made (Saturday) night, and I think that’s where he has really worked hard over the past year to become much more accomplished in all the different throws.”
Somehow, someway, Virginia needs to disrupt Zaire’s rhythm on Saturday. Defensive ends Kwontie Moore and Mike Moore must win individual battles, and inexperienced linebackers Zach Bradshaw and Micah Kiser must rise to the occasion in their second career starts. Without signature pass rushers Max Valles and Eli Harold, both of whom made an early leap to the NFL in the 2015 draft, Tenuta’s pressure must manifest itself in different ways.
If not, Zaire will utilize his many talented targets — Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. among them.
The Cavaliers were dealt a similar fate last weekend, and their beleaguered secondary couldn’t keep up.
“They got behind us on some of those play action passes, straight back passes — and obviously we have to do a better job in terms of the coverage standpoint,” London said. “But it goes back to the pressure as well, the pass rush pressure. If you’ve got all day to throw then you’ve got all day to run. It’s something that we’ll be addressing this week in practice, whether it’s personnel or the ‘who is doing what.’
“We have to make sure that the pass rush is as critical as our pass defense and coverage and those things work together.”
Come kickoff, Tenuta will have a game plan. But like a week ago, it may not resemble the end result.