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Friday, Feb. 23, 2024
The Observer

Cavaliers look to keep up defensive dominance against Irish

For only the third matchup between the two programs facing off this Saturday’s at Notre Dame Stadium, the stakes are high.

No. 18 Virginia will visit South Bend this weekend to take on No. 10 Notre Dame. The Cavaliers (4-0) are coming off a win against Old Dominion while the Irish (2-1) suffered their first loss of the season against the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs.

In his fourth season as Cavaliers head coach, Bronco Mendenhall has built a team with a formidable defense, especially when it comes to stopping the run. The Cavaliers have held opponents to a mere 2.2 yards per carry, and the squad currently leads the FBS in team sacks.

Plus, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins has proven himself to be one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in college football, a threat in the air and on the ground.

Irish senior running back Tony Jones, Jr. carries the ball during Notre Dame's 23-17 loss to Georgia on Sept. 21. Jones will look to lead the Irish rushing attack against a Virginia defense giving up only 2.2 yards/carry.
Irish senior running back Tony Jones, Jr. carries the ball during Notre Dame's 23-17 loss to Georgia on Sept. 21. Jones will look to lead the Irish rushing attack against a Virginia defense giving up only 2.2 yards/carry.

Ahead of his matchup against Notre Dame on Friday, Mendenhall gave a preview of the game in his weekly press conference.

Mendenhall said the good start his squad has had this season, along with the national attention the matchup against Notre Dame has garnered, has increased the urgency of the team’s preparation during the week.

“Yeah, every game and every win — put it this way: the number of times this year already I’ve heard, ‘This is the first time since...’ The number of sentences that have started with that after the game when someone walks up, ‘This the first time since...’ and there is some year and some statistic,” he said. “There are a lot of cool and positive things happening in your program. There will always be another metric and this is the next one. So Notre Dame is a very good team, national prominence, powerful name. We’re anxious to play. So to have a 4-0 start and have some of the attention we’re garnering just adds to the preparation and the urgency for us to continue to grow and learn.”

When asked about playing in a stadium with such a historical mystique as Notre Dame Stadium and how that affects the team’s attitude, Mendenhall seemed confident his players were concerned with nothing else except the game at hand.

"Well, I think just — and we do this wherever we go — we always see and go to the stadium when we arrive and come off the plane and have a chance to see the field and get familiar with the locker room and make the unknown known for those that haven’t been there,” he said. “But then there is the reality that we’re playing this year’s team with this year’s players. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking about the different players that might have been there, the names of the past. While that’s historical and a positive thing for Notre Dame, we’re playing this team, this year, in the stadium that the rest of the guys have played in. To think about more than that is just a waste of time.”

The Cavaliers have faced notable pressure in their matchups thus far, staving off Florida State in a primetime contest and coming from behind to beat Old Dominion last week. Mendenhall lauded his team’s cohesion and ability to rely on each other in high-pressure situations.

"The last two games — the stand that we made to hold off Florida State and then coming back from down 17 — when you start winning and winning consistently, which we’re starting to do, wins come in all shapes and sizes and forms,” he said. “Each one of those game scripts end up adding to a collective that kind of binds your team together. I saw after [junior linebacker] Zane Zandier's interception for a touchdown — I made a point in the meeting today — the defense, how they reacted — I’m talking about the other 10 players that were on the field — the way they reacted, they acted as if it was just those 11. The stadium was irrelevant, fans were irrelevant. It was just those 11. And I saw a connection being formed there that had more depth and substance than could have been formed without the circumstance of being down, needing a play, making the play, and then the collective celebration and investment in each other. And so I think all those things will help us have our best chance to be poised and ready in the setting we’re going into, and not as reliant or concerned about how many people are there or who is there. Just that we’re there.”

Despite Virginia's previously mentioned proficiency against the run, Mendenhall said there is still progress to be made on the run defense.

"I think it's a work in progress. I think there are times where we are doing that, but also when you look at the run numbers, especially in the college game, havoc plays or sacks, those numbers are counted in,” he said. “We’re affecting the quarterback at a high level right now and traditional runs, and if it was only the base run game that was being charted, again, I think we’re improving. I see progress. Consistency is still what we’re after, play in and play out. If we were to take away all the havoc plays that happened, sacking the quarterback, and say is it truly dominant without that, that’s when I’ll rest comfortable. We’re not there yet, but we are trending in the right way.”

Virginia will look to stop a Notre Dame run unit which hasn't been supremely effective thus far in the season, and judging by Mendenhall’s attitude, his defense is coming with its head held high.