Julian Okwara’s image was not quite ready for a milk carton, but Notre Dame fans were beginning to wonder when he would emerge from relative obscurity this season. Today was the day for his breakout performance, as the senior had three sacks and two forced fumbles to lead a second half explosion by the Irish. Relentless defensive pressure led directly to three second half touchdowns as Notre Dame turned a 17-14 deficit into a 35-20 victory.
The Irish moved to 3-1 on the season on the strength of eight sacks and five turnovers. Ian Book had a quiet game for Notre Dame, but the most encouraging news is that Tony Jones thundered for 131 yards to lead a rejuvenated ground game. Most of those yards came in the second half, when the Irish offensive and defensive lines dominated the visitors.
Each team scored on its first possession of the game. The combination of Bryce Perkins to Joe Reed was clicking for Virginia, while an Ian Book pass to Chris Finke set up the tying touchdown for the Irish. Okwara made his presence felt on the next series by forcing a Perkins fumble, and C’Bo Flemister took advantage by crashing into the end zone six plays later as the first period came to an end.
Trailing 14-7, Virginia dominated the second quarter. Perkins hit Reed, tight end Tanner Cowley, and wideout Hasise Dubois with pinpoint passes. A beautifully executed corner route to Dubois with 43 seconds remaining in the half gave the Cavaliers a 17-14 lead as the Irish offense struggled to mount a drive.
Notre Dame was determined to retake the lead after intermission, but the Cavaliers had other ideas. A perfectly executed onside kick caught the Irish napping, and Virginia’s offense took over at midfield. A sack by Okwara stopped the threat, but a Cav punt was downed at the Irish two yard line.
Notre Dame’s defense responded to the next Virginia possession in its territory with another sack. Jamir Jones knocked the ball loose from Perkins, and it landed in the hands of Irish tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa near midfield. Myron saw nothing but fake green turf between him and the Cavalier goal, and he made it to the seven yard line before being dragged down. Tony Jones punched it in two plays later for a 21-17 Irish advantage.
The momentum shift continued to fuel Notre Dame’s defense, even though they were challenged when Chris Finke fumbled away a punt on the next series. The Irish held on a fourth down play, as Perkins was feeling tremendous pressure every time he dropped back.
Meanwhile, the hosts still could not move the ball on offense. They failed to record a first down in the third quarter, but it didn’t matter because the defense took the field again with mayhem on their minds. This time, Okwara stripped the ball from Perkins while Ade Ogundeji scooped it up and scored from 24 yards out. The Irish now held a more comfortable 28-17 lead as the period came to a close.
The second half mauling continued for Notre Dame as Alohi Gilman picked off a pass early in the final quarter. Jones took over as the Irish finally decided to pound the ball against the tiring Cav defense. He ripped off a 25-yard run before finishing the drive on the next play with a 30-yard touchdown romp. Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton added an interception to snuff out Virginia’s last scoring chance.
This was a statement win for the Irish defense. They had struggled to get to the quarterback before today, but simplified their approach and started to win a majority of the individual battles in the trenches. Lots of good things happened after that. The offense and special teams are still struggling, however, but will have a soft game next week to figure out a few things.
Let’s look at the answers to our pregame questions:
Will the Irish lack energy and enthusiasm after the Georgia loss? The energy level was obviously higher in the second half, and even the normally comatose non-students in the stands made a bit of noise.
Which defense will be able to stifle the opponent’s running game? Notre Dame held Virginia to four net yards rushing, while Jones had his best career day for the Irish.
Can either team limit successful scrambles by the quarterback? Neither quarterback had much breathing room on attempted scrambles.
Will Notre Dame stretch the field with downfield passes? Only a couple of times. Book made a few poor throws and mostly elected to keep things short.
Which special teams will win the battle of field position? Virginia, in a landslide. The Irish defense bailed them out time and time again.
Will Notre Dame be able to protect Book from the aggressive Cav blitzes? Book was under pressure on many occasions and had two intentional grounding penalties, but Perkins had it much worse.
Can Finke, McKinley and other Irish receivers contribute more substantially to the cause? Not much in this game. Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet carried most of the load, but the Irish had only 16 completions for 165 yards and no touchdowns.
Which quarterback will commit the most crucial mistake? Perkins had a brutal day in the turnover category, but he threw the ball very well when he had time.
The victory did not come without a heavy cost. Cornerback Shaun Crawford, who has a history of bad luck in the injury department, suffered a broken arm and could be lost for the rest of the regular season. Claypool also hurt his ankle and was obviously hobbled even though he remained in the game. Finally, defensive end Daelin Hayes did not play due to a shoulder injury.
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