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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Uncharacteristically dismal defense will need to correct itself for Virginia

Louisville v Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - NOVEMBER 14: Brennan Armstrong #5 of the Virginia Cavaliers rushes in the second half during a game against the Louisville Cardinals at Scott Stadium on November 14, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

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Bronco Mendenhall is generally known for his defense. That was his calling card at BYU. That had been his calling card in his first four years at Virginia, even as quarterback Bryce Perkins led the Cavaliers to the ACC Coastal title in 2019.

In 2020, if Virginia had a calling card, it was very much not its defense. If that does not change in 2021, the Cavaliers may find themselves at or near the bottom of the Coastal, even as they are the reigning Coastal champions currently, technically speaking.

Oddly enough, the unraveling of Virginia’s defense coincided with its best win-loss stretch of the season.

The Cavaliers opened the year 1-4, the only win against laughable Duke, a stretch ending with a 19-14 loss at then-No. 11 Miami. They then closed 4-1, starting with an upset of No. 15 North Carolina.

In five of those last six games — from Miami through a season-ending loss at Virginia Tech in the Commonwealth Cup — Virginia gave up more than 300 passing yards. Mendenhall’s usual workmanlike defense was exposed, including giving up explosive pass plays of at least 30 yards on 8.2 percent of dropbacks, a rate that ranked No. 123 of the 127 teams that played last year.

If that defense was exploited, losing its second-leading tackler in linebacker Zane Zandier (79 tackles with 7.5 for loss) will not help. Neither will the departure of linebacker Charles Snowden, who made 21 tackles for loss across the last two years.

The Cavaliers are now also without receiver Terrell Jana (36 catches for 423 yards) and tight end Tony Poljan, a Central Michigan transfer who led the team with six touchdowns receptions.

As a whole, Virginia returned more than it usually would, with 71 percent of its production coming back, just as the entire country did. (The national average is 76.7 percent.) Of the five starting offensive linemen returning, four are able to do so courtesy of the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. The same applies to safety Joey Blount.

Without Perkins, the Cavaliers offense did not change all that much. Junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong leads Virginia both in the air and on the ground, running for 552 yards and five touchdowns on 126 carries last season, an average of 4.4 yards per rush while throwing for 211.7 yards per game with 18 touchdowns. His mobility puts cornerbacks in dangerous positions; turning their backs on the quarterback can lead to a big gain, but the Cavaliers have the perimeter speed to burn the cornerbacks if their coverage sags for just a moment.

Sophomore Lavel Davis averaged 25.8 yards per reception last season with five touchdowns. Senior Ra’Shaun Henry caught all of seven passes, but four of them were scores and he averaged 29.4 yards per reception. Junior Keytaon Thompson dabbles at quarterback in a Wildcat role and finished with six total touchdowns last season.

Virginia’s offense keeps defenses guessing, and those 122 returning offensive line starts will add some authority to that approach.

The Cavaliers expected a massive step back without Perkins, yet they still gained 423 yards per game and scored 30.7 points. Those numbers will increase further in 2021.

Since Mendenhall’s first season in Charlottesville, his 3-4 defense had ticked downward, from 33.8 points allowed per game to 28.4 in 2017 and 20.1 in 2018. With Perkins keeping things moving quickly offensively, the scoring defense slid up to 27.1 in 2019, but it was still stout.

Then it struggled mightily throughout 2020, allowing 29.6 points per game and 6.4 yards per play. (The 2019 defense allowed 5.7 yards per play, for context.)

Returning defensive lineman Aaron Faumui after he opted out in the 2020 season will help, having racked up five sacks in his career. Blount coming back after an injury cost him seven games will add veteran leadership to the secondary; Blount had 25 tackles, two pass breakups and an interception in just three games.

To further the idea of Virginia’s defense finding a spine up the middle, inside linebacker Nick Jackson led the team with 105 tackles in just 10 games, finishing second in the ACC.

With or without the defense taking hold, Mendenhall’s team is known to play tough football. Player development works well on the Cavaliers roster, but more than anything else, the team plays sound. It is not great, but it will not be blown out by anyone. Even at Clemson last year, Virginia lost only 41-23.

That all makes a season win total over/under of 6.5 seem very logical. If the Cavaliers do not spring an upset at North Carolina or at Miami in a 12-day September span, or against Notre Dame after an idle week, then they will need to win four of six games against Wake Forest, Louisville, Georgia Tech, BYU, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.

All six will be winnable, including Mendenhall’s trip back to his former employer in Provo. All six could also go against Virginia.

Mendenhall’s defense will be the determining factor, whether it returns to 2018-19 for or if 2020 was a larger indicator.

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