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By Jeff White (email@example.com)
NOTRE DAME, Ind. –– With no game next weekend to prepare for, the Virginia Cavaliers will have extra time to analyze their loss to 10th-ranked Notre Dame. They may not need it. There was little mystery about the Fighting Irish’s 35-20 win at Notre Dame Stadium.
No. 18 UVA, which led by three points at the break, turned the ball over four times in the second half. For the game, the Cavaliers had five turnovers, and the Irish parlayed those errors –– three lost fumbles and two interceptions –– into 28 points.
“Ultimately, our inability to consistently protect our quarterback in the pass game was the difference in the game,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Notre Dame (3-1) sacked senior Bryce Perkins eight times, and three of those hits resulted in fumbles that UVA lost. In the third quarter, the Irish totaled only 20 yards of offense, but that didn’t matter.
Defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa returned Perkins’ second fumble 48 yards to the Virginia 7 –– Notre Dame scored two plays later –– and defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji ran the third one back 23 yards for another touchdown.
“Those 14 points were basically the difference in the game,” Mendenhall said. “That does not mean we win if those are taken away, but that was the kind of game we were anticipating, where it was within a field goal at the end.”
The Cavaliers (4-1) scored on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Perkins to senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois with 43 seconds left in the second quarter, and they went into halftime leading 17-14, momentum Mendenhall wanted to keep going.
And so, at the start of the third quarter, he called for the onside kick his team had executed well in practices leading up to the game. It worked perfectly Saturday. Junior Brian Delaney popped his kickoff toward the right sideline, where no Notre Dame players were near senior Bryce Hall, who caught the ball in the air at midfield.
“I was close to doing that in the first half,” Mendenhall said, “but we had the lead [early], and it didn’t quite seem like we needed to steal the possession yet. With us kicking off the second half, I wanted to get the ball and score to start the second half. The first part worked out well. We didn’t score, but we executed the kick exactly how we had hoped, and I was encouraged by that.”
The Cavaliers’ possession stalled, but junior Nash Griffin’s punt pinned Notre Dame back at its 2-yard line. A three-and-out followed, and UVA took over at the Irish 38. Three plays later, however, Perkins lost the ball when he was sacked, and Tagovailoa-Amosa’s return set up the touchdown that put Notre Dame ahead for good.
The Irish extended their lead to 28-17 late in the third quarter when, after defensive end Julian Okwara raced past offensive tackle Ryan Nelson and separated Perkins from the ball, Ogundeji picked up the fumble and rumbled 23 yards for a TD.
“I just wasn’t aware of the guys coming off the edges,” said Perkins, who completed 30 of 43 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns. “Maybe I need to deepen my drop or feel the pressure more or just do things to eliminate those clean sacks.”
Early in the fourth quarter, Perkins threw his second interception, after which Notre Dame needed only five plays to move 71 yards for its final touchdown, the last 30 coming on a run by tailback Tony Jones Jr.
“It’s disappointing,” Hall said of UVA’s second-half performance, “it stings, it hurts, but one thing I know is that this doesn’t define us, and like we’ve been saying all year: Believe. We believe in each other, and we’re moving forward, and this loss isn’t going to set us back. We’re going to learn from it, and we’re determined as ever to fix the mistakes and get back on [track].”
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: With about six minutes left in the third quarter, the Cavaliers’ deficit was only four points when they went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Irish 32. A touchdown or even a field goal on that drive would have quieted the crowd and slowed Notre Dame’s momentum, but Perkins’ pass to senior wideout Joe Reed was off the mark.
The Irish’s next possession stalled near midfield, but they were able to flip the field with the punt that followed, and Virginia’s fourth turnover came moments later.
SHINING BRIGHTLY: Dubois and Reed each had a career-high nine receptions Saturday, as well as a touchdown catch. Dubois’ 143 yards also were a personal best, and he topped the 1,000-yard mark for his career. Reed finished with 107 yards receiving.
“We like our receivers, and they played as a position group at a level that we had expected and hoped they would,” Mendenhall said. “They were consistent. The stage was not too big for them. They made critical catches. They made contested catches. They were productive and really did a nice job. So I was impressed and pleased with how they played.”
Perkins said: “I’ve been with those guys for two years, so I know those guys well. I know what they can do, and I have all the trust in them, so I know if the ball’s in the air, they’re going to make a play on it. We were just doing things that we practice. That’s how practices look. So just trying to translate it, and we’ve just got to do a better job of translating it to the second half.”
CAUSE FOR CONCERN: Virginia finished with four yards rushing. In part, that was because the Irish totaled 55 yards in losses on their eight sacks. But sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa, with few holes to run through, gained only 31 yards on 10 carries
“We have to generate a run game at a much more consistent level that’s not only quarterback-driven,” Mendenhall said, “so that when we hand the ball off we can run the ball effectively and get yards, so there aren’t as many pass attempts, which then puts us in the situation that we ended up in today.”
The Cavaliers’ struggles in the running game are making their offense one-dimensional, Mendenhall said, and that makes it easier for defenses to pressure Perkins.
“I will say that when we’re throwing it, our receivers are catching it well,” Mendenhall said. “They’re doing a nice job. I think we all saw that. They’re capable and they were effective when the ball got to them. So we’re encouraged by that and disproportionately right now, if you want to get the ball to someone, it’s to our receivers. So we have to find the run game to start to find some sense of balance, and how to do it, that’s a work in progress, obviously.”
NOTHING FANCY: Mendenhall said the Irish did nothing unexpected with their pass rush.
“Just to be blunt, most of it was four-man rush in their base defense,” he said. “So it was simply an edge rusher technically beating or effort-wise beating an offensive tackle. So it was nothing schematically. I won’t take anything away from the Notre Dame players. They played hard, they rushed effectively, and they made the plays when they needed to, and creating turnovers, that changes games.”
ROUGH OUTING: On offense, sophomore Bobby Haskins started at left tackle, sophomore Ryan Nelson at left guard, sophomore Olusegun Oluwatimi at center, junior Chris Glaser at right guard, and junior Dillon Reinkensmeyer at right tackle. Later in the game, Nelson and then sophomore Ryan Swoboda saw time at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Joe Bissinger played briefly at right guard.
After the game, Oluwatimi said, offensive line coach Garett Tujague met with his charges and “asked us if our will was different from the first half in the second half. And that’s what he saw. He saw that we weren’t straining the same, we weren’t playing with the same fire and hunger because we won the first half. So coming out in the second half, we might have been a little lackadaisical.”
Asked about the many hits Perkins took, Oluwatimi said, “That was just on us. We were losing our one-on-man matchups. We weren’t giving Bryce time and the pocket was being pushed, so we’ve just got to be better, and we’ve got to be firmer. We’ve definitely gotta fix things up front and get better, to not put our team at risk.”
GAME BALLS: The Cavaliers’ first-ever game at Notre Dame Stadium did not end as they’d hoped, and they left South Bend ruing their breakdowns. Even so, numerous UVA players distinguished themselves in this nationally televised contest. In addition to Dubois and Reed, Virginia’s standouts included:
• Junior kicker Brian Delaney, who made both of his field-goal attempts, connecting from 32 and 27 yards, and flawlessly executed his part of the onside kick.
• Joey Blount, a junior safety who finished with a game-high 10 tackles, including one for loss. He also recovered a fumble on a muffed punt by Notre Dame, broke up a pass, and downed a punt at the Irish 2.
• Bryce Hall, a senior cornerback who had four tackles in addition to recovering Delaney’s onside kick.
• Billy Kemp IV, a sophomore wideout who gained 17 yards on two punt returns. (He also had three receptions.)
“He’s gritty and tough and he got us a few extra yards,” Mendenhall said of Kemp.
• Tanner Cowley, a senior tight end who matched his career high with three receptions (for 34 yards).
THEY SAID IT: Virginia’s loss drops the ACC’s record against ranked Irish teams at Notre Dame Stadium to 0-21. Among the postgame comments:
• Mendenhall on his message to his team: “We have some weaknesses that were exposed. If we executed better in those areas, we would have played better and had a great chance to win the game. That’s what we believed. I still believe that. However, eight sacks and five turnovers, those numbers are too substantial to then say we realistically had a chance to overcome those.
“We need to prove now that we can sustain and play the way we played the first half for an entire [game] against a really good team on the road if we want to move to the top of our league and have national prominence.”
• Hall on the onside kick: “We just kind of saw on film how they tended to pull their end guy back, and so we worked on it in practice, and we executed it in practice. Whenever we do that in practice, the plan is to run it in the game, to try to steal a possession, so that’s what we did.”
• Hall on the pounding Perkins has taken in recent weeks: “I’m not worried. He’s a tough dude. He’ll shake it off. We’ve got a bye week to get back and get ready, and my confidence in him has not wavered one bit.”
• Reed on Perkins: “Bryce is a tough guy. I’m not too worried, unless he starts saying something, which he hasn’t.”
• Perkins: “I’ve been eating my greens. My body’s good. I’m grateful that my body’s good, after all the shots I’ve taken.”
• Mendenhall on UVA’s four second-half turnovers: “When you’re playing a strong team on the road, that’s in most every case insurmountable in terms of your chance to effectively then manage and win the game.”
LOOKING AHEAD: The Cavaliers (4-1 overall, 2-0 ACC) head into the first of their two bye weeks. Virginia’s next game is Friday, Oct. 11, against Coastal Division rival Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. ESPN will televise the 8 p.m. game.
Miami (2-2 overall, 0-1 ACC), which was off this weekend, hosts Virginia Tech next Saturday.
The Cavaliers defeated Hurricanes 16-13 at Scott Stadium last year to end a three-game losing streak in the series.