Playing without star quarterback Brennan Armstrong, the University of Virginia football program did not have the firepower to compete with No. 7 Notre Dame, which defeated the Hoos, 28-3, Saturday evening in Scott Stadium.
The loss is Virginia’s second at home this season and fourth overall as the Hoos drop to 6-4. The Cavaliers entered the year having lost only twice in Scott Stadium the previous three seasons combined.
Without Armstrong, the likelihood of UVA reaching its season average of 38 points per game seemed unlikely, meaning the Hoos would need their most complete effort of the season to take down the Fighting Irish. Although there were glimpses of quality play on both sides, Virginia would not come close to getting the performance it needed.
The game started well for a much-maligned Virginia defense, which forced a turnover on downs on the game’s opening drive when quarterback Jack Coan came up shy of a first down on a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak. Subbing for the injured Armstrong, Jay Woolfolk became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for UVA since 1977. Woolfolk and the Cavalier offense went 3-and-out on their first drive, and following a 14-yard punt from Jacob Finn, Notre Dame began its second drive at the Virginia 43.
Once again, the Irish were faced with a 4th-and-1, this time at the Cavalier 20. After initially lining up for a field goal, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly called a timeout, ultimately deciding to go for it again. If this was a statement moment for his team, they answered the bell. Star sophomore tailback Kylen Williams took the handoff and went up the middle for 14 yards and a first down. Coan found tight end Michael Mayer in the end zone on the very next play, giving Notre Dame a 7-0 lead.
Missed tackles, missed opportunities to stop the Irish on third down, and two big plays – a 26-yard run by running back Logan Diggs, a 16-yard pass from Coan to Mayer – set up Notre Dame’s second score of the game, a 4-yard touchdown pass from Coan to Braden Lenzy. Notre Dame took a 21-0 lead on a Williams 22-yard touchdown run with 4:33 remaining in the second quarter. A struggling Cavalier offense obviously contributed to the deficit, but opportunities were there for the UVA defense to get off the field. Notre Dame was a perfect four-of-four on third downs on its second and third touchdown scoring drives of the game.
“I think it goes with the mindset,” Virginia cornerback Anthony Johnson said of finishing plays and stopping drives. “We have guys flying to the ball. We’ve got guys in position. We just have to concentrate a little bit more on wrapping guys up and bringing them to the ground. (We have to) do a better job in our pursuit, getting multiple hats on the ball so if one guy misses, the next guy is right there and it’s not going for four or five extra yards after the play.”
Virginia’s offense did not record a first down until the second quarter, with the team trailing 14-0. The Hoos crossed into Notre Dame territory on the drive before turning the ball over on downs. Woolfolk closed out the first half with an interception on a deep sideline throw to a double-covered Dontayvion Wicks.
The UVA offense showed some signs of life in the second half. Ultimately, though, the Hoos reached the Notre Dame red zone only twice, coming away with one field goal – a 34-yarder from Brendan Farrell, who missed a 44-yard attempt on the first drive of the second half. Farrell’s score came early in the fourth quarter, after Notre Dame had taken a 28-0 lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Coan to receiver Kevin Austin on 3rd-and-6.
Woolfolk concluded the first start of his collegiate career completing 18 of 33 passes for 196 yards and two interceptions. He was sacked seven times by an aggressive Notre Dame defense that blitzed consistently from start to finish. Virginia totaled just 82 yards rushing on 30 carries with Mike Hollins leading the way with 44 yards on nine carries. Keytaon Thompson led all receivers in catches (9) and yards (110). Billy Kemp IV had four catches for 37 yards before exiting with an injury. He tried to return but could not continue.
“I love Jay Woolfolk and I thought he handled tonight on par with it being a first start against a top 10 team, replacing what I think is the best quarterback in the country,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Our team also saw what we look like without Brennan and how they have to step up. Without looking at the difference between Brennan and Jay, Jay has a bright, bright future. I really liked the way Mike Hollins stepped up in the run game and Keytaon. Those are the kind of efforts around Jay that we would have needed sooner. But I thought Jay did a nice job. I think Notre Dame is good on defense. They gave him a lot of looks and pressure and got to him, so the protection has to hold better. But, I thought it was a solid start for him.”
“Jay is a young guy, not much experience yet,” Keytaon Thompson said. “I have kind of been in his position; back in the earlier days in my career, being thrown in as a young guy with not much experience against a quality opponent. I think he did pretty well. He didn’t get rattled. He made some great plays. I don’t think we did a good enough job as receivers or as an offense as a whole just to help him out and take some of that pressure off of Jay. Brennan [Armstrong]’s a great player for us and he makes a lot of plays. I think tonight we should have, as an offense, taken some of that pressure off Jay and made some more plays for him.”
The Virginia defense surrendered 423 yards of offense, including 249 yards rushing and 174 yards passing. The Hoos forced two second-half turnovers and gave the team a chance in the third quarter. Anthony Johnson intercepted Coan on Notre Dame’s first second-half possession and the Hoos forced a 3-and-out on the second drive, giving the Cavalier offense three possessions to make this a game. Virginia’s offense was unable to take advantage.
Despite the loss, there is good news for the Hoos. Virginia still controls its own destiny in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division heading into next Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. matchup at Pittsburgh. If the Hoos defeat the Panthers and then Virginia Tech at home on November 27, they are the Coastal Division champions and move on to the 2021 ACC Championship game. One big question remains, however. Will Brennan Armstrong be able to play?
“I made this statement last week and, at some point, the week before that,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think there’s another quarterback in the country doing more for his team than what Brennan is doing for us. That was validated to me this evening. So now, how and where we construct our offense and our productivity certainly has to be different. We have a better idea now, but I knew it would be tough. His injury didn’t look good early in the week and it looked better every day and even all the way to warmups. We’re not ruling anything out, but it is literally day by day.”
– Highlights, Courtesy of ACC Digital Network