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Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Virginia Cavaliers Preview and Prediction

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When Notre Dame travels to Charlottesville, Va., to play Virginia on Saturday, it will be the program’s first game played in the Old Dominion State. Both teams met at Giants Stadium in New Rutherford, N.J., in 1989 to start the season, with Notre Dame beating Virginia 36-13.

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Notre Dame’s opening victory over Texas was overshadowed by a season-ending ACL injury to top running back Tarean Folston, who led the Fighting Irish in rushing last season. The loss didn’t hinder Notre Dame, as it went on to win 38-3 behind quarterback Malik Zaire’s career day in which he went 19-of-22 passing for 313 yards and three touchdowns.

Last week, Virginia traveled to the West Coast to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The Cavaliers kicked three first-half field goals to trail 17-9 heading into the third quarter, but managed to score just one more time – a fourth-quarter touchdown – before ultimately falling 34-16.

Notre Dame at Virginia

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)

Television: ABC

Spread: Notre Dame -12.5

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Three Things to Watch

1. Malik Zaire vs. the Virginia secondary

People knew that Zaire would eventually evolve into an elite quarterback, but many probably weren’t expecting him to post the numbers he did against Texas last Saturday. Zaire shredded the Longhorns defense for 313 yards and two touchdowns, misfiring on just three passes in the game. The Cavaliers' secondary could have déjà vu this Saturday, as UCLA freshman phenom quarterback Josh Rosen, in his collegiate debut, torched Virginia for 351 yards and three touchdowns. If the unit doesn’t shore up things in its coverage schemes and execution, the Cavs' defensive backfield could be in for another long day.

2. Can Virginia establish a ground game?

If there’s one positive takeaway for UVA fans from last Saturday’s game, it’s that the offense produced a 100-yard receiver. That player was starting running back Taquan Mizzell, who caught eight passes for 100 yards. His efforts on the ground, however, were less impressive. Running behind a patchwork offensive line, Mizzell rushed for 45 yards on 16 carries for a meager 2.8 yards per carry. The team’s rushing struggles aren’t anything new, as Virginia had just 1,653 yards on the ground as a team in 2014. Only Wake Forest (439 yards) fared worse in the ACC. The Cavaliers must establish an effective ground game if they’re to keep up with a fast-scoring Notre Dame offense.   

3. Notre Dame’s revamped backfield

It's not going to be easy for the Irish to replace Folston. He led the team in rushing yards (889) and was second with six rushing touchdowns in 2014. Converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise replaced Folston in the opener and finished with 98 yards on 20 carries. Freshmen running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams also will see an increased workload. Adams scored two rushing touchdowns and ran for 49 yards on five carries against Texas while Williams picked up 24 yards on seven carries. While Texas’ defense had its issues against the run, allowing 214 rushing yards to Notre Dame, Virginia’s fared marginally better against UCLA, as the Bruins had 152 yards on the ground.

Final Analysis

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The atmosphere in Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon is sure to be electric as Virginia welcomes one of college football’s most popular programs and one that always brings a crowd of supporters. But not even an amplified Scott Stadium will be enough to give the Cavaliers an advantage. Notre Dame, even without Folston, is an incredibly talented team that should walk away victorious from its first visit to the Old Dominion State.

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Virginia 17

— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12