Injured quarterback Brennan Armstrong watched from the sidelines in street clothes as the powerful Virginia offense spat and sputtered on Saturday night in a 28-3 Notre Dame victory. Jack Coan delivered three touchdown passes and several Irish ball carriers ran for a combined 250 yards to pace the visitors. The Irish defense smothered the Cavs with eight sacks of freshman Jay Woolfolk. Notre Dame moved to 9-1 on the season while Virginia dropped to 6-4.
The Notre Dame attack was far from explosive, but the Cavalier defense could not hold up to strong performances by the Irish pass receivers and steady pounding by Kyren Williams and friends. Michael Mayer, Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin each caught a touchdown pass and made highlight reel plays during the contest.
Linebacker Bo Bauer led the way on defense with nine tackles and multiple havoc plays. He took most of the snaps as the coaching staff elected to rest Drew White and his ailing knee. Safeties Ramon Henderson and DJ Brown each had an interception for the Irish. Henderson had moved over from cornerback for this game. He showed excellent range, speed and instincts in this role.
The Irish took advantage of a slow start by the Cavalier offense to march for three first-half touchdowns. The opening drive went bust when Coan could not convert a fourth down quarterback sneak, but Virginia quickly went three and out. A shanked punt by the Cavs gave Notre Dame another chance in plus territory, and Coan capped the drive with a six yard scoring toss to Mayer for a 7-0 lead.
The Irish got the ball back and faced a third down play near midfield. Freshman Logan Diggs took the ball around left end, stiff-armed two defenders, and cleanly hurdled a third on the way to a 26-yard gain. Lenzy was undoubtedly inspired by Diggs’ leap as he took a short pass a few plays later and launched himself across the goal line.
While Woolfolk and the Cavaliers continued to misfire, Notre Dame built its lead to 21-0 late in the second quarter. A 27-yard run on a reverse by Lorenzo Styles would have been a 52 yard touchdown if not for a holding call downfield. It only postponed the inevitable though. Two plays later, Williams took off on an improbable 22-yard scoring run as he wove his way around and through the Cavs. Henderson’s subsequent interception ended the scoreless first half for Virginia.
The Cavs showed some life on both sides of the ball after intermission. Woolfolk gained some confidence and fired some passes downfield with authority. A sack by Bauer killed a promising drive and Virginia was forced to try a 44-yard field goal. They missed.
Another long reverse by Lenzy set up the final touchdown by Notre Dame late in the third quarter. Coan hit Austin on a sideline route with a perfect pass from 15 yards out. The Irish now led by 28-0 and it was time to clear the bench.
Woolfolk engineered a fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a field goal to avoid the shutout. Tyler Buchner then came on to lead a long march for Notre Dame, but a fumbled RPO exchange with Diggs at the five yard line fell into the hands of Virginia’s Noah Taylor. Woolfolk and the Cavs had one more shot to find the end zone, but Brown picked off a tipped pass to end it.
The outcome was never in doubt once Armstrong and his painfully broken ribs could not answer the bell. Notre Dame played well enough, but who knows if 28 points would have been enough to beat the Cavaliers at full strength. The Irish need compelling performances to ascend into the playoff picture, but this performance did not do enough to move the needle. At the end of the day, there are still seven teams with better claims on the four spots.
Anything can happen during the last two weeks of the regular season and in the conference championship games but it would be better if Notre Dame could play and beat one of those teams.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions for further analysis.
Will Armstrong start and be able to make it through the entire evening? No to both, and Woolfolk took a vicious beating as well.
Which offense will be balanced and gain a time of possession advantage? The Irish ground game was dominant and they won the total yardage battle by 423-278. Time of possession was even, but again Notre Dame controlled the ball throughout the first half when it truly mattered.
Can the Irish defense succeed with a bend but don’t break game plan? Notre Dame was more aggressive against Woolfolk than they would have been if Armstrong had been healthy. The eight sacks speak for themselves.
Will Notre Dame be able to contain Thompson wherever he lines up? Thompson caught nine passes for over 100 yards, but he did not get near the end zone.
Which special teams will contribute impact plays? The only noteworthy special teams play was the shank by Virginia punter Jacob Finn. It set up the first Notre Dame touchdown.
Will the Irish secondary be able to cover five dangerous targets? They did a good job overall, even with a liberal substitution of young players throughout the evening.
Which offense will make the most of its red zone chances? The Irish flubbed two chances with a fumble and fourth down failure. Virginia was far more inept though.
Can Williams finally get some Heisman recognition? Williams had only 70 yards, but he did not have as many touches as he normally gets. Anyone who saw his touchdown run knows that only a very special player could have scored on that play.
Notre Dame returns home next week for Senior Day against ACC doormat Georgia Tech. The season finale on the road against a poor Stanford team looms after Thanksgiving, so it’s very likely this team will finish at 11-1. The rankings are more of a beauty contest than a numbers game, however, and this Irish squad has not looked very sexy in most of its wins this year. You can now add Virginia to that list.