By the skin of their teeth. By the hair on their chinny chin chins. By a nose. Whatever idiom suits a close call the best, that’s what describes the last two wins for the Virginia football team. The Cavaliers secured their second straight road victory Saturday in the blink of an eye as an errant flick of a foot from the opponent sailed left on the final play of the game.
UVA claimed the 34-33 nail-biting win at Louisville as the ball missed well wide of the uprights. The Hoos prevailed 30-28 at Miami in a Thursday night game in their previous outing when the kick turned left and hit the upright. Cardinal kicker James Turner entered the game with an 85.7% success rate through 15 career games; he had never missed inside 50 yards until the first half Saturday and then again when his final attempt drifted left from 49 yards. Miami freshman Andres Borregales had missed two kicks previously, but also had a 43-yard game-winning field goal against Appalachian State with 2:04 to go before his 33-yard kick clanked off the post.
With road wins hard to come by, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said he was grateful to get a victory after those kicks missed. The Hoos owned an 0-4 record at Louisville prior to Saturday’s outcome.
“It’s my first time in my career and I’m just grateful,” Mendenhall said of winning consecutive games on missed kicks by the opponent. “I know what it’s like to be on the other side. I know the margin for error and just grateful that we played well enough. We have one more play go our way than the opponent and I just I think Coach Satterfield and his team played hard and well and so did we, so one play is really what it comes down to and there’s so many you could pick from the last one was just the most visible.”
Of course, Louisville needing to attempt a game-winning kick 14:57 earlier seemed highly unlikely. The hosts had ripped off a 20-0 third quarter to storm ahead 30-13 after trailing at the half. The Cardinals gashed the defense with their running game to open the half when Hassan Hall broke through the line for a 52-yard touchdown and a 17-13 lead. Then a defense that hadn’t stopped teams consistently all season built on a solid first half with a pair of interceptions. On the first, Trey Franklin jumped in front of a Brennan Armstrong pass and returned the pick to the UVA 25-yard line where an Armstrong tackle helped limit the damage to a field goal.
After a three-out and another rushing touchdown pushed the lead to 27-13, Louisville intercepted Armstrong again. A tipped pass at the line bounced into the air and Kenderick Duncan pulled it in to set up another short field inside the 30. The UVA defense held the Cards to a field goal again, a key part of the eventual outcome, but at the moment the score stood at 30-13 and Virginia was reeling.
The Cavaliers, after all, have relied heavily on the play of Armstrong this season and he’s put up some eye-popping numbers as a result. On three drives in the third quarter, however, Armstrong went 5-10 passing for 10 yards with 2 interceptions and 2 sacks. A rough quarter and a three-score deficit did not look promising.
Armstrong had a response, though. A huge response.
Starting with a 20-yard completion late in the third quarter to Keytaon Thompson, he kicked the offense into gear. He followed that with a pair of completions to Billy Kemp IV to open the fourth quarter for 18 combined yards. The next target went to Ra’Shaun Henry for 22 more yards and Thompson capped off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run. The Hoos had new life. When the offense got the ball back, Armstrong was at it again. He missed on his first pass of the drive, but then hit Henry for 18 yards, Thompson for 34, and Kemp for 8 more with a couple of Wayne Taulapapa runs sprinkled in as well. On the final play of the drive, Jelani Woods got in on the act with a 3-yard touchdown catch on third down to quickly close the score to 30-27.
The teams exchanged punts midway through the fourth quarter with Armstrong taking another sack, but another breakout run from Louisville led to a field goal that made it 33-27. Armstrong had one more chance with 2:22 to go, though. He delivered.
The final drive wasn’t perfect, but it was clutch. Armstrong found Kemp for 17 yards on a 4th-and-6 play to keep his team afloat. He connected with Thompson for 17 more yards too, but the Cardinals again pushed things to fourth down and the brink of a loss for Virginia. On 4th-and-8 following a Thompson false start penalty, Armstrong fired a strike to Thompson for 16 yards. Thompson caught the next completion too for 18 yards that moved the ball to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Armstrong lofted a ball to the left side of the end zone where tight end Grant Misch hauled in his only catch of the day and that touchdown held up for the 34-33 victory.
“Grant was my fourth option,” Armstrong said. “I quickly jumped from one to two to three faster than I could even blink and then I got to four, and then he was coming across on the over, and I found him. I just felt the flow of the defense. It flowed hard to one side, and I got back to the other side and there he was.”
Armstrong finished 40-60 passing for 487 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He has thrown for 400 or more yards in four of the six games this season, including two games that surpassed the previous single game passing record of 455 yards. He had 554 passing yards at UNC.
Henry, Thompson, and Kemp each made 9 catches to spearhead the passing attack after Dontayvion Wicks left the game on the first drive after being hit in the head on a tackle. Henry had 179 receiving yards, while Thompson added 132 receiving yards and the one rushing touchdown. Kemp posted 64 receiving yards with a touchdown catch on the opening drive. Freshman Malachi Fields added 3 catches for 60 yards thanks to the longest UVA reception of the day that covered 51 yards. That accounted for most of the offense in the game as Taulapapa chipped in 42 rushing yards on 10 carries for really the only production from the running game.
After those two third quarter interceptions, Armstrong closed the game with 15 completions on his final 22 attempts for 214 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“He’s just the guy if it’s a neighborhood game, whatever side he’s on, you want to be on that team because you think you’re going win just because he thinks he’s going win no matter what the circumstances are,” Mendenhall said. “When you throw a couple interceptions and things don’t go your way, it sure didn’t seem to bother him or maybe it bothered him, but he is just a fierce competitor and he’s so capable and after the game he knew it wasn’t perfect, but it was enough and that’s kind of where our team is.”
A similar description could fit the UVA defense – Saturday’s performance wasn’t perfect, but it was enough and it was clutch at the right times. The imperfect part is easy to spot as Louisville scored on two explosive plays. One came on the Cards’ first play of the game with a 92-yard passing bomb. Quarterback Malik Cunningham dropped a pass over the middle to Tyler Harrell on the run and he just kept going until he scored. The other big scoring play was the aforementioned 52-yard touchdown run from Hall on the first drive of the second half. The only other touchdown came on a short field drive following a short punt from UVA’s Jacob Finn.
Critical stops helped overcome those scoring plays. Circling back to the defense’s play after Armstrong’s interceptions, the Cavaliers held the hosts to field goals on drives that started inside the 30. The defense also put together quick stops early in the fourth quarter to get the ball back to the offense where Armstrong worked his magic. On each of Louisville’s first two fourth quarter drives, the UVA defense forced a 3-and-out.
The Hoos needed to force field goal attempts on two more drives in order to secure the comeback, though. The obvious one came on the final drive when the missed kick gave the visitors the win. The other came on the previous drive to keep the team within striking distance. The Cardinals got another big run from Hall as he cut back through an alley and covered 53 yards to the Virginia 27. UVA cornerback Darrius Bratton saved a touchdown by coming across the field and pulling Hall down to save the touchdown. The defense then held for 5 yards on the next 3 carries and the field goal left the Cavaliers with their final opportunity.
Coen King led Virginia with 8 tackles and a fumble recovery (he also forced it). Nick Jackson, Noah Taylor, and Antonio Clary all added 7 tackles, the latter of the three getting extra time because Joey Blount missed the game with an unspecified injury. Cunningham, who had big rushing days against the Hoos in the two previous meetings, finished with just 38 yards on 6 carries. Hall had 14 carries for 162 yards with the bulk of that coming on the two breakout runs. Cunningham did complete 17 of 25 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown.
Bratton broke the rock after the game.
“I was thinking, ‘I love you, boy,'” UVA linebacker Nick Jackson said. “I mean, he’s a fast guy. Bratton plays hard. Being at your best when your best is needed is something that we always talk about. Bratt, that diving, saving tackle, that’s game right there. That was the biggest play of the game.”
“There’s a lot of statistics that were remarkable, I think, for both teams, but the player that broke the rock for us was Darrius,” Mendenhall said. “He didn’t have a significant role tonight, in terms of number of plays, but there couldn’t have been a bigger play made, and his effort and fortitude and commitment to our team. That play to me, I’m not going to forget as a coach. In fact, I might I only remember a couple plays from that whole game and that was the one I remember most.”
The program secured back-to-back road wins for the first time since 2017 and the back-to-back ACC road wins for the first time since 2011. Following consecutive lopsided losses against North Carolina and Wake Forest, the timing could fairly be called unexpected. Before these two games, Mendenhall’s UVA teams had only won 5 ACC road games total. Still, the team is following its leader at quarterback and Armstrong summed up why the team didn’t fold after trailing 30-13 at the end of a disastrous third quarter. The same mentality applies to getting off the mat after the UNC and Wake losses.
“I always think why would you quit? Why would you quit anything?” Armstrong said. “When you do all this work to go out and perform, and sometimes, you don’t perform well. But why would you quit? It just doesn’t add up in my head. That’s just kind of how I think. I just keep it simple. Why would you quit if you do all this work for so much time?”