Five keys for Notre Dame against Virginia: Irish must come out inspired after last week's loss

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Here are five keys for No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1) when it hosts No. 18 Virginia (4-0) on Saturday (3:30 EDT on NBC).

PLAY INSPIRED

The season is far from over for the Irish. But at a minimum, they will need to win out to earn an invite to the College Football Playoff. The Irish took precautionary measures to ensure they won’t play uninspired against the Cavaliers. ND’s seven captains held a players-only meeting Monday afternoon in hopes to boost the team morale following their 23-17 loss at Georgia. The Irish showed last week that they have the talent to compete against anyone. A lackadaisical demeanor against UVA, though, would mean trouble.

BACK TO NORMAL

Quarterback Ian Book and the offense could take another step forward. Wide receivers Michael Young (broken collarbone) and Braden Lenzy (concussion protocol) and running back Jahmir Smith (sprained toe) return after being sidelined with injuries. Chris Finke should benefit from Young’s return. Finke’s natural position is in the slot, but he operated more at the outside receiver position during Young’s absence. Lenzy’s speed could help stretch UVA’s defense, while Smith’s role will help in short yardage situations.

FINISH PLAYS

Wetter field conditions and the potential of rain could increase the difficulty of tackling and throwing the football. ND’s defense struggled with tackling against Louisville. Finishing plays also has been an emphasis for Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem. Both standout defensive ends have yet to record a sack this season, though some of that has to do with opposing quarterbacks looking to release the ball quicker. Dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins may look to run more because of the conditions and ND’s elite pass defense. Bringing him down on a slippery field may prove to be challenging.

FIX STALLING PROBLEMS

There were a few drives against Louisville — and even New Mexico — in which ND’s offense stalled with three-and-outs. Georgia exposed this dynamic, limiting Notre Dame to nine plays for 19 yards with zero first downs in the third quarter. Tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Chase Claypool were quiet for sustained stretches against the Bulldogs. The running came proved to be ineffective, with Tony Jones Jr. rushing for just 21 yards on nine carries. The Irish offense cannot continue to surrender possession via a handful of three-and-outs again.

HANDLE PRESSURE

UVA’s 3-4 defense wreaks even more havoc than that of UGA. Pass rushers and blitzers may be in the face of Book all afternoon. The Cavaliers are tied for No. 1 in sacks and No. 5 in tackles for loss. They rank No. 12 in run defense and No. 14 in total defense. Four of UVA’s starting linebackers — Charles Snowden, Noah Taylor, Jordan Mack and Zane Zandier — have at least two sacks this season. Having solid pocket presence and making quick decisions will be necessary for Book to weather the storm.

Notre Dame’s Michael Young (87) exits the field following Notre Dame's 23-17 loss to Georgia in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, inside Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.
Zane Zandier (33) is one of four Virginia linebackers with at least two sacks.

NOTRE DAME (2-1) vs. Virginia (4-0)

At Notre Dame Stadium (77,622), South Bend, IN

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. EDT

TV: NBC

Series history: Notre Dame leads 2-0

Betting line: Notre Dame by 12.5