Virginia had No. 5 Louisville on the ropes. Then Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson threw the final knockout punch for a 32-25 win and showed why he is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in the process.
After UVA moved ahead with 1:57 to go on a bold 2-point conversion play, Louisville’s star dual-threat quarterback responded with a Heisman-worthy performance. Jackson engineered a game-winning, 75-yard drive to help his team escape with the win.
“He was really calm, confident, and focused,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said of Jackson. “He is a great competitor. He was upset with himself on the early interception in the third quarter, but he came over and told the offense, ‘Hey, that’s on me, here we go, let’s get back in the game.”
Jackson opened the final drive with an 18-yard run, kept it going by threading the needle on a 4th-and-3 at midfield, and capped it off with a perfectly thrown 29-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Smith over cornerback Juan Thornhill. In total, Jackson rushed for 34 yards and passed for 34 more on that final drive. He also completed a 2-point conversion pass to reach the final margin.
On the game-winning touchdown pass, Jackson’s throw showed perfect touch to beat tight coverage from the Hoos.
“They made one more play than we did today,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “It was great coverage. There’s really nothing I could tell our corner to do any better than what he did. Just right at the end there, their guy made the play and we didn’t.”
A Jackson-to-Smith 2-point conversion boosted Louisville’s lead to 32-25 with 13 seconds left in regulation. The Cardinals defense sealed the victory with a sack of Benkert on the game’s final play.
Jackson had a big day outside of that final drive too. He finished with 361 yards passing and 4 touchdowns including the decisive one in the final minute. He also added 90 yards rushing, though UVA’s defense performed admirably by sacking Jackson five times and picking him off once. That helped hold the Louisville offense 20 points below its average.
Micah Kiser led the Wahoos with 14 tackles that included 2 sacks and a fumble recovery. Quin Blanding chipped in 8 tackles and an interception along with 2 pass breakups.
“We rushed anywhere from three, four or five. We had about as much defense as we could hold in preparation for a game and it took everything that we had,” Mendenhall said. “We had a decent idea of what their protection was. That doesn’t mean if you are unblocked that you’re going to tackle their quarterback, but we were able to affect him and affect him for a long time.”
The defense’s effort left Virginia in position to pull off a huge upset at Scott Stadium. That included holding the Cardinals to a field goal with 8:09 remaining that kept the score at 24-17 and set up a dramatic final drive for the Hoos. They put together 14 plays for 75 yards to score a touchdown. The drive included a pair of fourth down conversions.
With 1:57 remaining in the fourth quarter, Cavalier quarterback Kurt Benkert hit wide receiver Doni Dowling on a 4-yard touchdown pass that cut Louisville’s lead to 24-23. Mendenhall did not hesitate and no one on either sideline seemed surprised by the decision to go for the 2-point conversion and the lead. The bold call paid off when Albert Reid crossed into the end zone after corralling a Benkert pass, which put the Hoos up 25-24. Scott Stadium crowd erupted into a frenzy.
“I wanted to win and I didn’t want to go to overtime. I wanted to win now,” Mendenhall said. “I wanted the team to know that I believed in them and that we weren’t going to rely on anyone else, that we had an opportunity to show how we’re going to play and how the program is going to be run. And they executed it really well.”
“I had a feeling he was going to do that,” Taquan Mizzell said. “Coach is very aggressive. He trusts our preparation, so once he called it he knew we were going to get it. … A lot of people were nervous. I was very nervous. It was hard for me to watch at first, but that play has worked 10 times out of 10 this year. I was very confident. Our defense played a great game that whole entire game. I thought they were going to pull it off.”
“I knew they would go for two,” Petrino said. “We are the fifth-ranked team in the country, and they had a chance to go for to win the game. We kind of knew that going into the game.”
That go-ahead drive proved big for Benkert. Overcoming being benched in the fourth quarter of the UNC game as well as a shaky start against Louisville, Benkert threw for 238 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinals. He did have two interceptions, however, both at the hands of cornerback Jaire Alexander and they were critical. The first cost the Cavaliers a scoring opportunity, while the second set up a touchdown for Louisville, which assumed possession at the UVA 12 following the pick.
Still, he stayed with it and got his team down the field to take the lead in the final two minutes.
“He’s learning to be resilient, he’s learning to be poised, he’s learning to finish games,” Mendenhall said of the junior starting quarterback.
After three straight home games, Virginia heads to Winston-Salem (N.C.) next Saturday for a matchup with Wake Forest. Game time is set for 3 p.m. UVA, which fell to 2-6 including 1-3 in the ACC, must win out to become bowl eligible.
“I felt like we made strides today but honestly I’m tired of making strides and not winning,” said Reid, a senior running back. “I feel like the next few games we’re going to play hard and we’re going to win some games.”