By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In all likelihood, the University of Virginia football team has seen the last of Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, the extraordinary quarterback who’s expected to turn pro after this season.
For that, UVA can be thankful. In Charlottesville last year, Jackson’s heroics in the final minutes ripped what would have been a monumental victory from the hands of the Cavaliers. He tormented head coach Bronco Mendenhall‘s team again Saturday, this time at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, had a 68-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and finished with 147 yards on 15 carries in Louisville’s 38-21 victory over UVA. He also completed 15 of 26 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
With that performance, Jackson became the first player in NCAA history to post two seasons in which he had more than 1,000 yards rushing and 3,000 passing.
“Lamar Jackson is an explosive football player,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and Louisville has good players on the offensive side of the ball, and they’re dynamic and explosive.”
The Cardinals’ defense has been less formidable for most of this season. Louisville came into its game with the Wahoos (6-4 overall, 3-3 ACC) allowing 30.8 points and 410.1 yards per game. But the Cardinals (6-4, 3-3) sacked quarterback Kurt Benkert four times Saturday, forced two turnovers and held the `Hoos to 277 yards, only 63 of which came on the ground.
“I think maybe the biggest surprise is just the pressure they got on the quarterback,” Mendenhall said.
Benkert said: “They brought a lot of pressure. They twisted a lot up front and they played a little bit more off [UVA receivers] outside, so we couldn’t just take our quick shots when they blitzed.”
The Cavaliers “did not hit our benchmarks on anything we came here to do,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “Way too many three-and-outs, way too many lost opportunities.”
For all of Virginia’s struggles, though, this was a three-point game at halftime. With 48 seconds left in the second quarter, Benkert passed to redshirt junior tight end Evan Butts for a 25-yard touchdown, and true freshman A.J. Mejia‘s extra point make it 17-14.
The `Hoos had the ball first in the third quarter, and a 22-yard completion from Benkert to junior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus gave them a first down at the Louisville 36. But the drive stalled there, and Virginia punted away the ball. Louisville responded with a long touchdown drive capped by Jackson’s 23-yard pass to wideout Jaylen Smith.
“I think if we can get up 21-17 it’s a different game at that point,” Benkert said. “They’re a team that once they get up and they get that momentum, they can be really explosive … They can get up big and they can get up big quickly, so we have to take advantage of our opportunities, and we didn’t do that today.”
Asked about Virginia’s first second-half possession, Mendenhall said it was “maybe a disappointing moment. I’m not sure it was pivotal. There were too many plays after that to say that there’s just one play that caused that. Probably just another example of a critical play that we didn’t make on either side of the ball.”
With the outcome long since decided, Virginia scored the game’s final touchdown, on a 3-yard run by junior Jordan Ellis with 1:48 left. In a game in which he had little room to operate, Ellis finished with 58 yards rushing on 13 carries.
“I think we’re a team that if we can run the ball well, we can do a lot of other things, and I think that we have to find a way to establish the run a little bit better than we did today,” Benkert said. “And I think when it isn’t working, the quarterback and the receivers, we’ve got to do a better job of being more effective and more efficient.”
The Cardinals, who totaled 493 yards, controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
“I feel like they were probably more physical than us up front, just putting pressure on the quarterback and kind of stuffing running lanes,” Ellis said. “They played pretty well today … They really won the war up front. They deserved to win.”
WHAT IT MEANS: The Cavaliers came into the weekend still in contention for the Coastal Division title.
To overtake Miami, however, the `Hoos needed, among other things, to post an unbeaten record this month, and that won’t happen now. But Virginia, bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, still has much to play for, Ellis said.
“We’re playing for everything that you signed up to play football for,” he said. “It’s our pride. We’ve still got two games left to show the world what kind of team we are. Obviously today we didn’t show it.”
OFF TO THE RACES: Not only did the Cardinals dominate up front, they looked significantly faster than Virginia at the skill positions.
Louisville has “explosive players in space,” Mendenhall said, and “one [defender on Jackson] isn’t enough. And if you cheat down and put more on him, then other players have possibilities.”
Virginia sophomore cornerback Bryce Hall said: “They’ve got some athletic guys. We were well-prepared for it. It just kind of got out of hand at the end. We weren’t making our routine plays that we usually make, and so it just kind of got out of hand from that point.”
GAME BALLS: Collectively and individually, the Cavaliers have had better days. But there were several standouts for UVA. They included:
* Wide receiver Andre Levrone, a fifth-year senior who had six catches, tying his career high, for 92 yards.
* Butts, who had two receptions for 29 yards.
“I’m pleased with Evan and his approach. It’s been consistent,” Anae said. “We do need more out of him and the other inside receivers from a blocking vantage point to make screens and runs work better and more consistently. But when the ball’s in the air, Butts is very consistent … He’s definitely a solution as opposed to a problem.”
* Sophomore Joe Reed, who returned seven kickoffs for 152 yards. A week after he took a kickoff back 92 yards for a touchdown against Georgia Tech, Reed encountered a Louisville team determined not to let him break loose. But he still managed to give the `Hoos solid field position.
* Running back Chris Sharp, a redshirt sophomore who also has practiced at wideout and safety since enrolling at UVA in 2015. Sharp carried two times for 16 yards on Saturday and scored his first TD as a Cavalier on a trick play that punctuated Virginia’s first possession.
In the running game, Anae said, Virginia is “looking for a home-run hitter. We’ve got a good workhorse running back [in Ellis]. We do not have a home-run hitter, and we hope to get some of those things with Chris.”
* Inside linebacker Jordan Mack, a sophomore who sacked the elusive Jackson twice and forced a fumble. Mack finished with nine tackles, as did two of his teammates: senior safety Quin Blanding and senior inside linebacker Micah Kiser.
THEY SAID IT: Before the team headed back to Charlottesville, Mendenhall, Anae and several UVA players fielded questions in the bowels of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Among their comments:
* Mendenhall: “We didn’t make enough stops defensively, especially in the second half … to keep the points within reach for our offense to come back. Our offense struggled with ball security and protection for our quarterback. So Kurt was on the run most of the day, and it’s hard for him to have a good day when the protection was inconsistent, and defensively we have to keep the points and the deficit closer so we can play our brand of football longer.”
* Kiser on whether, a week after becoming bowl-eligible, the Cavaliers were able to avoid complacency: “Absolutely. We just didn’t play well. That’s all it was. It’s not like, `Oh, we’ve got six wins, so we can just chill.’ That wasn’t the vibe at all this week.”
* Anae on the drops that have been an issue for UVA’s receivers this month: “We’ve got to take a good look at who we’re throwing the ball too and try to find the consistent [receivers]. Because when we are consistent in that area, that obviously helps the cause, and tonight we came up short in that regard as well.”
* Redshirt junior center Jake Fieler: “I think we played hard. I don’t think you can question that. But I just think we didn’t make plays when we had to make plays.”
WHAT’S NEXT? UVA, which is 2-2 away from Scott Stadium this season, plays its final road game next weekend, against No. 7 Miami (9-0 overall, 7-0 ACC).
At noon Saturday, the Cavaliers take on the Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The game will be televised on ABC or ESPN.
No. 7 Miami stunned No. 3 Notre Dame 41-8 at Hard Rock Stadium last night.
Virginia concludes the regular season Friday, Nov. 24, against Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium. To purchase tickets, click here.
“We’re going to play a great Miami team on a big stage,” Kiser said. “That’s awesome for us. A lot of guys [on the UVA roster] haven’t beaten Miami, and then we obviously finish with Tech, a team that none of us have beaten. We’re focused. We just need to get back and play better. We didn’t execute well [against Louisville]. It was close at halftime, and we came out and we didn’t get it done.”