Virginia football returned home for the first time since Halloween weekend but unfortunately could not come up with a win in front of a crowd of nearly 50,000 against No. 9 Notre Dame, losing 28-3. The Cavaliers (6-4, 4-2 ACC) struggled mightily on offense without starting junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, while the Fighting Irish (9-1) used a balanced offensive attack to remain in control the entire game.
The first — and perhaps biggest — news of the game came before the ball was even kicked off, as Virginia announced freshman quarterback Jay Woolfolk as its starter due to an injury to Armstrong, who, at the beginning of the day, was the nation’s leader in passing yardage. While it did result in a shift for the Fighting Irish in terms of gameplan, Woolfolk had only thrown six passes all season, so any predictions about how Virginia’s offense would run were based on pure speculation.
After receiving the opening kickoff, Notre Dame marched down the field, converting on its first two third downs before facing a crucial fourth-and-one from the Cavalier 21-yard line. The play was initially ruled short of the line to gain, and after review the call on the field stood, giving Virginia a massive initial win on defense. Woolfolk and the Cavaliers could not capitalize, however, as a Virginia three-and-out gave the ball right back to the Fighting Irish with great field position after just a 14-yard punt by graduate student punter Jacob Finn.
After driving to a nearly identical fourth down, Notre Dame appeared to elect to kick a field goal before changing its mind during a timeout. Sophomore running back Kyren Williams then burst through the Virginia defense, rushing for 14 yards before a touchdown pass from graduate student quarterback Jack Coan to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer put the Fighting Irish up 7-0. On the ensuing Cavalier drive, a bevy of penalties stunted Virginia from the beginning, resulting in another punt from Finn, albeit this one going much further.
Missed tackles — a problem that has pained Virginia throughout the entire season on defense — struck again on Notre Dame’s next drive, with freshman back Logan Diggs breaking free for 26 yards on a crucial third-and-two. Coan paid off the Fighting Irish yet again in the end zone with another passing touchdown to extend the lead to 14.
Virginia responded with its first productive drive of the game, with Woolfolk picking up first downs using both his arm and his legs to bring the Cavaliers into Notre Dame territory. Facing fourth down, Virginia attempted a perhaps ill-advised fake field goal, with Woolfolk falling short of the line to gain to give the ball back to the Fighting Irish.
Third down conversions continued to be the story of the game, as Notre Dame converted two more over the course of its next possession. Williams was able to break away from the Cavalier defense, rushing for what appeared to be a touchdown but was still a 27-yard play. Two plays and several Virginia missed tackles later, the sophomore running back found the end zone to extend Notre Dame’s lead yet again to 21-0.
Virginia’s final drive came to a premature end with a Woolfolk interception, and Notre Dame proceeded to run out the clock to head back into the locker room with the score 21-0 in its favor. Looking at the first half statistics, it’s evident that the matchup was one-sided from the start. The Fighting Irish outgained the Cavaliers 264 yards to just 94, and also converted 6-8 third downs, many of which extended future touchdown drives. Overall, neither offense nor defense was working for Virginia in the first 30 minutes of play.
Coming out of the second half the Cavalier offense put together by far their strongest possession of the game, but a third down sack taken by Woolfolk resulted in a missed 44-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Brendan Farrell that kept Virginia off the scoreboard. Just three plays later the Fighting Irish would give the ball right back to the Cavaliers with a Coan interception by junior cornerback Anthony Johnson.
On the ensuing possession for Virginia, disaster struck when senior receiver Billy Kemp hobbled off the field with an apparent leg injury. The offense — already down Armstrong and senior running back Wayne Taulapapa — could not afford another injury. After yet another penalty by the Cavaliers, Virginia punted once again.
Notre Dame would be forced to punt, and the Virginia offense would again find themselves in Fighting Irish territory, but a fourth down sack taken by Woolfolk extinguished any hope of putting points on the scoreboard. The resulting drive for Notre Dame sent many Virginia fans for an early exit, as Coan threw his third touchdown pass of the day to senior receiver Kevin Austin to extend the lead to 28.
Virginia would tack on a field goal early in the fourth quarter to avoid a shutout, but it was too little, too late for the Cavaliers, as the sluggish first half was too difficult to come back from. After that the teams would take turns running out the clock to bring the final tally to 28-3, making the Fighting Irish 2-0 all-time in Charlottesville.
Overall, it was an extremely frustrating game for the Cavaliers. Had Armstrong been available to play, the Virginia offense may very well have had enough chances to win or at least keep the game close. The defense tightened up in a real way in the second half, stopping the Fighting Irish multiple times in their own half of the field, but the offense simply could not move the ball in any real way without the star of the team. If anything, the game made Armstrong’s case as the best quarterback in the ACC even stronger.
Although Coach Bronco Mendenhall was very complimentary of Woolfolk’s performance, especially in the freshman’s first start against a top-10 team, Mendenhall agreed with the importance of Armstrong in his postgame press conference.
“I don’t think there’s another quarterback in the country that does more for his team than Brennan [Armstrong] is doing for us,” Mendenhall said. “That was validated to me this evening.”
Virginia will return to ACC play after a four-week hiatus Saturday, as the Cavaliers travel to Heinz Field to take on No. 21 Pittsburgh. Kick-off is set for 3:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2.