With his team leading No. 10 Notre Dame by three in South Bend (IN), head coach Bronco Mendenhall opted to start the second half with an onside kick. UVA recovered the well executed play, one they had worked on all week, to give quarterback Bryce Perkins and the offense possession at the Notre Dame 40.
Granted it was early in the second half, but at that point the 18th-ranked Cavaliers had to be feeling good about their chances to capture the school’s first ever road win over a top 10 opponent. Perkins had completed 18-of-22 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois were making big play after big play and the Cavalier defense seemed to be settling in, forcing the vaunted Notre Dame offense into consecutive 3-and-outs to close out the first half.
It all went downhill from there for the Virginia offense, though, and ultimately the Hoos were dealt their first loss of 2019. Notre Dame’s 35-20 victory drops UVA to 4-1 overall heading into a much-needed bye week for the Cavaliers next week.
“Congratulations to Coach [Brian] Kelly and Notre Dame. They played cleaner and they played more effectively than we did to win the game,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
“17-14 at halftime was exactly what we had hoped,” Mendenhall said. “Then the four turnovers in the second-half, insurmountable to overcome. We need to prove now that we can sustain and play the way we did the first half for an entire half against a really good team on the road if we want to move to the top of our league and have national prominence.”
Coming off a disappointing effort versus Old Dominion, the UVA offense appeared to have righted the ship early against an experienced Fighting Irish defense that surrendered an average of 18 points per game its first three games. Virginia took the opening drive 69 yards on seven plays, ending with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Perkins to senior Joe Reed to open the scoring.
Notre Dame responded with two quick touchdowns, the second coming on a 54-yard drive after senior defensive end Julian Okwara sacked and then stripped Perkins. The Irish received touchdown runs from Tony Jones Jr. and C’Bo Flemister to grab a 14-7 first quarter lead.
The Cavaliers answered with a Brian Delaney 32-yard field goal, which capped off a 16-play, 61-yard drive that began with 18 seconds left in the first quarter and ended at the 8:07 mark of the second. That’s when the Cavalier defense started to rise, bending but not breaking on Notre Dame’s ensuing drive, which ended with a missed 47-yard field goal. The Irish would go 3-and-out on each of its next two possessions before halftime. Meanwhile, the Virginia offense put together a 5-play, 76-yard touchdown drive to bring the first half to a close. Hasise Dubois’ 16-yard touchdown reception put the visitors up, 17-14.
The offensive line woes Virginia experienced against Old Dominion surfaced again in the second half in South Bend. As Notre Dame’s defense rose its level of play significantly, Virginia failed to match. The Cavaliers’ first seven second half possessions produced 18 total yards and three turnovers, all of which resulted in touchdowns. Notre Dame had two more strip sacks of Perkins in the third quarter – the first was returned to the Virginia 7 yard line and set up a Jones Jr. 2-yard touchdown run. The second was returned 23 yards for a touchdown by defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji, and suddenly the home team had surged to a 28-17 lead.
By game’s end, Perkins had been sacked eight times. Okwara had three sacks and two forced fumbles while fellow defensive end Khalid Kareem added 2.5 sacks. Notre Dame tallied 13 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.
“Just to be blunt, most of it was 4-man rush in their base defense, so it was simply an edge rusher technically beating or effort-wise beating an offensive tackle,” Mendenhall said of Notre Dame’s defensive success up front. “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. Creating turnovers changes games.”
“It was just on us,” sophomore center Olusegun Oluwatimi said of the hits on Perkins, some of which were clean shots. Oluwatimi returned to his starting center role on Saturday after missing the ODU game with an injured snapping hand. “We were losing our one-on-one matchups. We weren’t giving Bryce time. We just gotta be better and we gotta be firmer.”
Virginia committed five turnovers in total, including the two fumbles lost and two interceptions in the second half. Notre Dame capitalized on the miscues with 28 points while UVA could not take advantage of its lone fumble recovery. The Hoos finished with 334 yards passing but had an abysmal four yards rushing on 29 attempts. Take away Perkins’ minus-29 number because of sacks, running backs Wayne Taulapapa and PK Kier managed only 30 yards on 12 carries.
“We have to generate a run game at a much more consistent level that’s not only quarterback driven, that when we hand the ball we can run the ball effectively and get yards,” Mendenhall said.
Dubois (nine receptions, 143 yards, one TD) and Reed (nine receptions, 107 yards, one TD) had huge games. The duo, and other Virginia receivers such as Terrell Jana (four catches, 23 yards) and tight end Tanner Cowley (three catches, 34 yards), are proving to be reliable playmakers for the Hoos.
Defensively, Virginia performed fairly well against a potent Notre Dame offense. Only two of the Irish’s touchdown drives were longer than 54 yards. Quarterback Ian Book, who leads a passing attack that averaged 300 yards per game in the team’s first three games of 2019, had only 165 yards through the air. The Fighting Irish did get success out of its ground game as Jones Jr. totaled 131 yards on the ground and three scores. Notre Dame finished with more rushing yards (178) than passing yards.
“I thought defensively we played relatively consistent,” Mendenhall said. “I was disappointed in [Jones Jr’s 30-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, which put Notre Dame up 35-17]. I was not pleased with that one.”
Safety Joey Blount led UVA in tackles with 10, including nine solo efforts. Linebacker Zane Zandier and defensive lineman Eli Hanback were credited with a sack apiece. However, Notre Dame scored three touchdowns on its three trips inside the red zone.
As mentioned, UVA has a bye this coming week before traveling to Miami for a Friday night game that could have huge ACC Coastal Division implications. The off week will be huge for rest as well as trying to solidify the offensive line, among other things. If the Hoos can snag a victory over Miami, they would move to 3-0 in the ACC. Duke, which is currently second in the Coastal at 1-0, waits in the wings the following Saturday in Charlottesville.
“Going into the bye week now. Some weaknesses exposed,” Mendenhall said. “Some areas to improve targeted. That’s what we’ll do.”
“It’s disappointing,” Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall said of the Notre Dame loss. “It stings, it hurts, but one thing I know is that this doesn’t define us and like we’ve been saying believe all year, so we believe in each other. We’re moving forward. This loss isn’t going to set us back. We’re going to learn from it. We’re determined to fix the mistakes.”