The Virginia football team shook off a pair of first half turnovers on consecutive possessions and took advantage of some timely defensive plays to drop Louisville on Saturday, 31-17. The Cavaliers scored 14 points off of take-aways and added another touchdown following a stop on downs to put together the decisive plays in the outcome.
Those critical moments had gone against the Hoos during their four-game losing streak last month, but they’ve reversed that trend with key plays at big times in back-to-back victories at Scott Stadium. They have a chance to get back to .500 on the season with their only non-conference game of 2020 next week against Abilene Christian.
“It was a tough, tough game, a tough victory and very competitive and hard fought,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I was proud of our team from beginning to end. There were things we can correct. There are things we did well. There are lessons to be learned just like there is every week. But, I feel momentum. I see some consistency, moving and growing. I like how it’s shaping up and how it’s framing up for the last part of the season. I’m really lucky to be the coach. I love my team and I’m really impressed with Brennan [Armstrong] and his leadership. The stage is set for the next game and that’s where our focus will be.”
Against the Cardinals, the game got off to a rocky start before the first of those significant tide-turning plays quickly gave UVA the early lead. The hosts won the coin toss and elected to play offense first, but a three-and-out series with a single yard gained immediately gave the ball away. Louisville, on the other hand, got its offense moving with plays of 11, 14, and 15 yards among the early snaps. That pushed the ball into the red zone when quarterback Malik Cunningham ripped off 15 yards on a carry – a glimpse of what was to come on a big night for him.
The Cavalier defense, however, stopped Cunningham two plays later for a loss of six yards to force 3rd-and-13. With a blitz coming on that down, Cunningham took what seemed like a safe play when he tried to quickly dump the ball over the middle but he never saw Virginia linebacker Noah Taylor dropping into the underneath zone. Taylor easily intercepted the pass, turned toward the home sidelines, and took off thanks to key blocks from Nick Jackson and Zane Zandier.
That resulted in an 85-yard touchdown return and the Hoos’ first defensive touchdown of the season. It this year’s longest interception return in the ACC and the third longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision. It is also the longest interception return in program history by a linebacker. Taylor broke the rock after the game as part of UVA’s post-win tradition.
“When I caught it, I was like yeah I gotta make this a touchdown,” Taylor said. “I looked to my left and I just see like [guys] playing UVA football, a lot of guys like Nick Jackson and Zane just blocking for me, which I really appreciated.”
“Oh yeah, I just saw the ball kind of go over my shoulder,” Zandier said. “I was part of the rush, and I saw him catch it so I kind of just turned to see who was the most dangerous guy, and I think their running back had a decent angle, and I kind of just laid out and tried to get as much as I can on him. And it might have been a little close to a block in the back, but they did not call it, so it worked out pretty good. You know, just to be able to see Noah run down the sideline into the end zone, just absolutely awesome.”
UVA tried to add to its lead late in the first quarter with a drive that reached the goal line, but ended up in a turnover. Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong connected with tight end Tony Poljan up the middle, but he came up a yard short of the end zone when Louisville’s Marlon Character forced a fumble at the goal line and the Cardinals recovered. Poljan left the game and did not return after that hit.
The Cavaliers forced a punt, but three plays later Character thwarted another drive for the offense. Near midfield, Armstrong tried a pass on the left side, but receiver Lavel Davis Jr. fell down and Character came through with the interception. This time, the defense couldn’t stop the momentum shift as the Cardinals marched 59 yards in just 4 plays to take a 10-7 lead. Cunningham again posted big carries with runs of 36 yards and 19 yards to bookend the drive and get the ball in the end zone.
Cunningham ended up with 20 carries for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 161 yards too.
“He’s very fast,” Zandier said. “Not that I underestimated him because we played him last year and I think a little bit the year before, but he’s just incredibly fast. He’s a great athlete and made a lot of plays with his feet tonight. I think containing it to 17 points is a positive, but that dude definitely had a good night.”
Virginia responded with a 67-yard touchdown drive of its own, which Armstrong capped off with an 8-yard scoring run and took that 14-10 lead into intermission. When the teams re-emerged from intermission, it was the Wahoos’ turn to take advantage of turnovers and a key defensive stop.
On the first possession of the half, Louisville faced a 4th-and-2 play at its own 47-yard line and decided to go for it. Cunningham handed the ball to Maurice Burkley on an option play where he maybe could have kept the ball for an outside run. The Cavaliers stuffed the play and handed the ball to the offense with good field position.
Armstrong took advantage of the situation through the air this time. He hit Terrell Jana for a 33-yard gain along the home sidelines on a big third down play (a free snap thanks to the Cards jumping offsides) and then flipped a little pass to Davis over the middle for the scoring play. On that call, Armstrong appeared to be taking off again but stopped and tossed a soft pass to the wide open Davis from 9 yards out for the 21-10 lead.
Davis had missed the previous two games, but returned to contribute 4 catches for 74 yards and that touchdown. UVA also got matching 46-yard receiving nights from Jana and Billy Kemp IV. Armstrong finished 15-of-23 passing for 203 yards. Jana has a 23-game streak with at least one catch and 3+ receptions in 19 games over the past two seasons.
“I think you saw it – just the vertical stretch downfield and his length and his speed and just, it keeps defenses as they want to defend our run game, as they want to defend our quarterback, they just have to know there’s a bigger risk,” Mendenhall said. “Just the three or four or ever how many receptions he had, they stand out. It makes defensive coordinators and defensive players more hesitant to get closer. So he’s making progress and that helps our offense.”
Louisville clawed back to 21-17 on the scoreboard late in the third quarter on another Cunningham touchdown run and he had his team on the move again after a UVA field goal drive made it 24-17. He rushed for 10 yards on 2nd-and-11 and then burst through an open lane again on the ensuing third down play. He picked up 27 yards before the Virginia defense came up with another big take-away. This time, cornerback Nick Grant joined a tackle effort and ripped the ball free to force and recover the fumble all in one motion.
The hosts followed up with an immediate touchdown drive again just like the stop on downs to open the half. This time, a big pass play to Kemp on 3rd-and-9 kept the chains moving with a 29-yard gain. Five plays later, Armstrong ran into the end zone again for a 9-yard score that put the final margin on the board. In the end, the quarterbacks matched each other with rushing touchdowns.
Armstrong tallied 60 yards and 2 touchdowns on 15 carries, though most of those were either scrambles or option decisions vs. called quarterback keepers because Keytaon Thompson missed the game due to an injury. The Hoos also got 102 yards rushing from it’s running backs as Shane Simpson (50), Wayne Taulapapa (32), and Ronnie Walker JR. (20) each contributed.
Ultimately, Virginia’s ability to capitalize in those critical moments made the difference as the hosts scored a defensive touchdown, a touchdown after a fumble recovery, and a touchdown after the fourth down stop at midfield. The defense also forced another fumble and got another stop on downs in the fourth quarter to prevent any Louisville hopes of a comeback.
“The three turnovers and the two fourth-down stops, I thought, were the difference,” Mendenhall said. “And it’s always hard to say it was the difference. There’s counter arguments to it, I know there is. But I think that changed the game and I think that ultimately was the difference between both teams. We struggled all night tackling their quarterback, keeping him contained. Designed runs worked for them against us. The quarterback scramble worked against us and he really did an amazing job. We did make those five plays and critical stops and then scored once [on defense], which really changed the outcome. So, while there were challenges, the positive plays kind of overrode the challenges in terms of the outcome of the game.”