Virginia’s sluggish start to last weekend’s come-from-behind win over Old Dominion remains a mystery to head football coach Bronco Mendenhall.
He said after the game that he saw no warning signs during the week in practice, but the Cavaliers fell behind 17-0 and needed some momentum-swinging plays by the defense to come back and win, 28-17.
“I wish I could say that I saw it coming during the week. I didn’t,” Mendenhall said. “My job is to try and see it and fix it if we can do it before it happens. But luckily, enough players and enough of the team responded in-game to pull a win out. Coming back from 17 is not easy.”
Much of Virginia’s struggles last weekend can be traced back to failing to move the sticks on third down. The Cavaliers went into the game having converted on 21-of-41 third downs in their previous three games. Against Old Dominion, they went 1-for-11.
“I would love to say there was one recurring theme, but just basic execution was not quite to the level we normally and had been playing to,” Mendenhall said. “And then credit ODU. The way they played, the style they played, they were very well-prepared for us. I think they had something to do with it.”
No. 18 Virginia (4-0, 2-0 ACC) knows it’s going to have to move the chains better this weekend at No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1).
“Everybody understands how important third down is,” Quarterback Bryce Perkins said. “It just takes everyone playing together and executing together to get it done.”
The Cavaliers’ defense also is going to have to get it done on third down if Virginia is going to upset the Fighting Irish in its first trip to historic Notre Dame Stadium.
To do so, it’s going to have to contend with a host of physical running backs, led by 227-pound Tony Jones Jr., who is averaging almost five yards per carry but was limited to 22 yards last week against Georgia.
Notre Dame’s running game has been far from dominant on the stat sheet, but Mendenhall said that doesn’t always tell the whole story.
“I think they’re physical and tough and I think they run really hard. I think they’re strong offensively. Numbers are misleading sometimes. So I haven’t seen maybe the gigantic chunk that sometimes lead to the yardage which then leads to the attention which then leads to the accolades,” Mendenhall said. “But I have seen the ball consistently being moved when they want to run it against whomever they play. So I think it’s a physical, tough, grinding approach, which just hasn’t yielded big plays yet on the ground, but certainly capable.”
Mendenhall also knows that while Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book isn’t going to be hurdling tacklers the way Perkins does, he’s an intelligent player who understands when to pull it down and when to go for it all.
“Not only mobile, but a quick decision maker. When you’re playing Notre Dame, it just jumps out really quickly how well-coached, well-schooled, and not only in fundamentals, but decision making the majority of the team is,” Mendenhall said. “That’s what I noticed right off this morning, is how quickly defenses are diagnosed, how fast the ball is out, how effective [Book is] once he pulls it down to run it and then just the competitive spirit he has.”