The Virginia Cavaliers have established themselves as legitimate contenders for their first ACC Coastal Division football title. This weekend, they will step onto the national stage.
The Cavaliers on Saturday will play at Notre Dame for the first time in program history, and doing so with the team’s highest ranking since 2007.
“Put it this way,” Cavaliers Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “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, and there is some year and some metric.
“There are a lot of cool and positive things happening in our program. There will always be another metric, and this is the next one.”
The 18th-ranked Cavaliers already have made significant strides from last year, winning four games to open a season for the first time since 2004 and so far validating preseason predictions of a Coastal title.
But without reigning national champion Clemson on the schedule until perhaps the ACC title game, Virginia’s best chance to make a sweeping impression during the regular season comes at storied Notre Dame Stadium in a game broadcast on national television.
The Fighting Irish, ranked 10th nationally with a 2-1 record, are 20-0 as a ranked team playing an ACC opponent at home. Notre Dame has played Virginia just twice previously, most recently in 2015 when the Fighting Irish scored the decisive points with 12 seconds remaining to secure a 34-27 win at Scott Stadium.
“I mean, I’m excited for it,” Cavaliers defensive tackle Eli Hanback said. “Everyone who likes college football, or knows anything about it, knows who Notre Dame is, the field there and all that stuff that goes along with it, so it is going to be exciting and a cool experience.
“But then again we’re going to play a football game. We’re not going there to sightsee or anything like that.”
Virginia players indicated they are expecting a boisterous crowd at Notre Dame Stadium, particularly with the Fighting Irish coming off a 23-17 loss at No. 3 Georgia last weekend that dealt a blow to their aspirations of reaching the College Football Playoff in consecutive years.
During practice this week, Mendenhall had artificial noise, including Notre Dame’s fight song, piped in at deafening decibel levels over the loudspeakers, a common practice for teams going on the road into traditionally high energy environments.
Mendenhall is at least somewhat familiar with the atmosphere at one of the sport’s iconic venues from his time as coach of Brigham Young.
This will be Mendenhall’s fourth game against Notre Dame. He lost all three previous meetings, including in 2012 and ’13 during the Fighting Irish’s early years under Coach Brian Kelly.
“I orchestrate and create crises during the week in as many different ways that I can, and that helps to some extent,” Mendenhall said. “So emotion is something, and chaos is something, we work to create in practice. Again, I try to create as much as possible.
“That’s really all you can do, other than continue to build your program.”
Silent counts also are part of most game plans when stadium noise is a major concern, although Virginia may be without starting center Olusegun Oluawatimi for the second week in a row. The sophomore missed this past Saturday’s game against Old Dominion with an injured snapping hand.
Oluawatimi practiced this week, but Mendenhall did not provide an update as to his status for Notre Dame.
Miscommunication between backup center Tyler Fannin and quarterback Bryce Perkins during a sequence in the second half of the Old Dominion game nearly resulted in disaster.
Not anticipating the snap, Perkins was unable to control the ball and ran backward to try to gather it off the ground. As he was bending down, Old Dominion’s Keion White delivered a crushing hit, and Perkins was slow to get back to his feet. He missed one snap before reentering the game. Virginia had to rally from a 17-0 deficit against the Monarchs to win, 28-17.
Virginia’s defense ranks second in the ACC and 14th nationally in total yards allowed, at 263.8 yards per game. The Cavaliers also are tied for first in the country in sacks (20), with Jordan Mack’s five the most among all linebackers in major college football.
“I know that South Bend is an amazing place,” cornerback Bryce Hall said. “They’ve had a great tradition, and so it’s going to be an exciting time. I’m excited to go and play there. Obviously when you’re a kid and you hear about Notre Dame and the tradition, it’s hard to get past them, and you know how great they’ve been.
“I think it’s just going to be like living a childhood dream, going to play against teams like that.”