For the third straight time this season, the University of Virginia football program was unable to find the winning formula on the road. The latest setback came Saturday afternoon as the Cavaliers dropped a 28-21 decision to cross-division rival Louisville.
“You have to execute at a higher level and be more consistent and more mature to handle road environments,” Virginia football head coach Bronco Mendenhall said during his Monday press conference earlier this week. “We’ve proved that we are capable of doing that with the season opener [against Pittsburgh], and that formula for winning that game was very similar to our formula for beating Duke [48-14 last Saturday in Scott Stadium].
“I think it’s becoming clearer how we play well and what gives this team its best chance to win,” Mendenhall added. “Now, executing consistently regardless of circumstance, home or away that is the next challenge.”
Virginia failed to meet the challenge in Cardinal Stadium. Louisville trailed the Hoos by seven at halftime before rattling off 21 consecutive second-half points that propelled them to victory. A late Virginia rally ended when quarterback Bryce Perkins’ last-second Hail Mary fell incomplete.
“We played just well enough, reminiscent of Miami, to throw a ball into the end zone at the end, but we didn’t make enough plays, and obviously I haven’t coached our team well enough to make enough plays in the settings yet on the road to compensate for being away from home,” Mendenhall said in his postgame press conference. “I thought our team competed hard. Just didn’t make enough plays to win the game.”
Virginia started strong, holding Louisville scoreless on the first drive of the game before producing a 7-play, 60-yard touchdown scoring drive on its opening possession. Running back Wayne Taulapapa pushed his way into the end zone on a 6-yard run to give the visitors a 7-0 lead.
A Cardinal offense known for their big-play ability countered Virginia’s opening score with a 77-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Micale Cunningham to speedy receiver Tutu Atwell, who took what essentially was a forward pitch, raced right, broke through the line and outran the Cavalier defense to the end zone. Louisville would hit on four plays of 25 yards or more against the tough Cavalier defense. Two of those plays went for touchdowns, while a third – a 26-yard pass from Cunningham to Atwell – set up Louisville’s lone third quarter score.
Sparked by a 78-yard punt by redshirt junior Nash Griffin that flipped field position, Virginia gained control in the second quarter. Griffin’s punt pinned Louisville back at its own 7. A 3-and-out gave Perkins and the Cavalier offense great field position, which they then took advantage of with a 5-play, 53-yard touchdown drive capped off by a Taulapapa 19-yard touchdown run.
The Virginia defense dominated the second quarter, in which Louisville had redshirt freshman Evan Conley at quarterback. Conley played all four second-quarter series, guiding the Cardinal offense to -1 total yards and zero first downs. UVA’s offense reached the red zone one more time before halftime, but Perkins’ errant pass on 2nd-and-6 at the Cardinal 20 was intercepted, costing the Cavaliers points.
Seemingly in position to take control on the road, just the opposite happened to the Cavaliers. Robert Anae’s offense was downright inept for much of the second half, yielding four punts and a lost fumble on their first five second-half possessions. By the time the Hoos found the endzone again, only 21 seconds remained in the game and Louisville enjoyed a 28-21 lead.
Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield reinserted Cunningham at quarterback to start the second half, and the Cardinals went with the redshirt sophomore the remainder of the game. The move paid immediate dividends as Cunningham guided his team to a game-tying touchdown on their opening second-half possession, one that would prove costly to the Cavalier defense.
The Cardinals began the possession at their own 11, but consecutive 3rd-and-long conversions – a 15-yard run by Cunningham on 3rd-and-11 and a Cunningham pass to Dez Fitzpatrick for 10 yards on 3rd-and-9 – moved the ball to the Cardinal 36. Virginia forced a 3rd-and-3 two plays later and seemingly ended the drive when Cunningham’s deep pass attempt fell incomplete. However, senior linebacker and team captain Jordan Mack was flagged for targeting on the play. The call was confirmed, meaning UVA had lost one of its top defensive playmakers for the remainder of the game (and for the first half of next game). Louisville capitalized four plays later with a 2-yard touchdown run by Javian Hawkins that tied the game at 14.
“It certainly influenced the game,” Mendenhall said of Mack’s ejection. “It’s uncharacteristic to give up the third down conversions that we did on the same drive, and then when Jordan went out on that same drive and it’s a 15-yard penalty … yeah, it hurt. That was a tough stretch for us.”
Louisville took the lead for the first time at the 14:22 mark of the fourth quarter, when Cunningham faked a handoff on a read option play, sprinted left and raced into the end zone from 25 yards out. The Cardinals began the drive at the UVA 34 after recovering a fumble by star Cavalier receiver Joe Reed.
Desperately needing points, the Cavalier offense instead continued to falter. UVA had two offensive possessions after Louisville took the lead. Both resulted in punts. The Cardinals would take a 28-14 lead when Hawkins scampered 17 yards for a touchdown with 2:46 remaining. On the ensuing drive Virginia drove 69 yards and Perkins found Tavares Kelly Jr. for a 4-yard touchdown pass to get the Hoos within seven with 21 seconds left. Hope sprung when Cavalier senior receiver Hasise Dubois recovered the onside kick at the Cardinal 41, but UVA could not achieve the game-tying touchdown in the final seconds.
Offense issues that have plagued the Virginia football program this season certainly resurfaced on the road Saturday afternoon against Louisville. The Hoos gained 311 yards and scored 21 points against a Cardinal team that was surrendering 455 yards and 33.4 points per game in seven previous outings. After taking a 14-7 lead, Virginia had six punts and two turnovers before its final score.
“It didn’t ever seem like we found our rhythm offensively and could add the consistency needed to move the ball and kind of take over the game,” Mendenhall said. “The ability to score points and move the ball consistently against a team that had struggled a little bit defensively, I think we all expected to have more success.”
Rushing yards once again proved elusive as the Cavaliers managed just 78 yards on 26 yards despite a solid first half by Taulapapa, who rushed for 51 yards and two touchdowns on his first seven carries. However, after his 19-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, Taulapapa received four more carries and gained three yards the rest of the game.
Bryce Perkins finished with 233 yards passing, a touchdown and an interception, while rushing for 22 yards. He appeared significantly slowed by a lower leg injury sustained on the second drive of the game. Perkins missed two plays before returning to action on the next series. He completed 24-of-41 passes.
“[The injury] certainly affected [Virginia’s offensive game plan] and changed the plan to what it was prior to Brennan coming back in terms of run options,” Mendenhall said.
“Bryce’s injury early on had some impact, but I was surprised we weren’t able to control the ball more, move the ball more, and maintain momentum,” Mendenhall added.
Virginia committed the only two turnovers of the game and committed eight penalties for 70 yards. A 15-yard pass interference call on redshirt junior cornerback De’Vante Cross was part of Louisville’s final touchdown scoring drive.
Operating as Louisville’s quarterback on eight of 12 drives, Cunningham totaled 223 yards of offense (126 passing, 97 rush) and two scores. Louisville amassed 360 total yards, including 227 yards rushing. Hawkins led the way with 136 yards on the ground.
With the loss, Virginia falls to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The defeat, coupled with UNC’s 20-17 win over Duke, means the Cavaliers and Tar Heels are tied atop the Coastal Division heading into next Saturday’s matchup in Chapel Hill. After winning its season opener at Pitt, Virginia has lost three straight road games and dropped three of its last four games overall.