Virginia led at the end of each of the first three quarters Saturday against Louisville, appearing to be the superior team.
Even as the Cavaliers made key defensive plays against the short-handed Cardinals and moved the ball efficiently on offense, they struggled to deliver a knockout blow ensuring they hold the lead after the final — and most important — quarter.
Louisville quarterback Mailk Cunningham made play after play with his legs, scrambling for 197 yards as the Cavaliers’ defense searched for answers. Finally, on one of Cunningham’s remarkable runs with the game in the balance, cornerback Nick Grant set up UVa’s knockout blow.
As safety D’Angelo Amos wrestled Cunningham toward the ground, Grant grabbed hold of the Louisville quarterback and ripped the ball from his arms, creating a turnover that halted Louisville’s potential game-tying drive.
“It went from coaches furious on the headset because we weren’t tackling him very well to elation all within like a split second,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers marched down the field on their ensuing drive, punching the ball into the end zone from nine yards out on a Brennan Armstrong rush. The score put the Cavaliers up by 14, and they held on for the 31-17 victory and their second consecutive triumph.
UVa (3-4, 3-4 ACC) started slowly again Saturday, going three-and-out to open the game before allowing Louisville to drive down the field. The Cavaliers made up for a rocky first few minutes when linebacker Noah Taylor reeled in an interception from Cunningham, who threw the ball directly to him.
Taylor caught the ball in the middle of the field, then raced to his right and followed a convoy of blockers for an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“It might have been a little close to a block in the back, but they didn’t call it, so it worked out pretty good,” linebacker Zane Zandier said of his attempted block on the return. “Just being able to see Noah run down the sideline into the end zone was absolutely awesome.”
The Cardinals responded by driving 54 yards to set up a 48-yard field goal from James Turner to cut the deficit to 7-3 with 3:59 left in the first quarter.
Virginia seemed poised to take a 14-3 lead at the end of the opening quarter when Armstrong hit a wide-open Tony Poljan for what seemed like a possible touchdown. Instead, Poljan was hit at the goal line and fumble.
Louisville recovered, and although the officials initially called it an incompletion along with a targeting penalty on the Cardinals, a replay review overturned both the penalty and the ruling.
Poljan missed the rest of the game with injury after the rough hit.
After the fumble, the Wahoos’ next drive ended with an even worse turnover. Armstrong tossed the ball to safety Marlon Character, who seemed like he was the intended receiver on the errant throw.
This time, the Cardinals capitalized on the Virginia mistake with points, driving 59 yards in four plays, ending the drive with a 19-yard rushing touchdown from Cunningham. With wide receiver Tutu Atwell and running back Javian Hawkins both unavailable, Louisville leaned heavily on Cunningham’s rushing ability.
The Cardinals took a 10-7 lead with 10:14 left in the second quarter on his 19-yard scamper.
It was a short-lived lead for Louisville.
Virginia marched down the field on the ensuing drive, leaning on its rushing attack. Indiana transfer Ronnie Walker Jr. received his first carry for UVa, rushing once for 11 yards. Armstrong capped off the drive with an eight-yard rushing touchdown that ended with him lowering his shoulder and plowing into the end zone.
“Trucking the guy in the end zone, it’s just what I do,” Armstrong said. “[Quarterbacks] coach [Jason] Beck told me that’s the one time I really could try to put my shoulder down and give it all I got, so that’s what I did.”
Armstrong and the Wahoos entered halftime with a 14-10 lead.
Much like the first half, the Cavaliers seemed close to pulling away, but mistakes kept the Cardinals close.
A key fourth-down stop near midfield handed the ball to the Cavaliers with great field position. Five plays later, Armstrong found a wide-open Lavel Davis Jr. for a nine-yard touchdown toss.
With a 21-10 lead, UVa forced another stop and received the ball at its 40, but conservative play calling and mediocre execution led to a three-and-out.
Five plays later, the Cardinals celebrated a one-yard rushing touchdown from Cunningham to cut the deficit to 21-17 with 2:49 left in the third quarter. The touchdown was set up by a 46-yard pass from Cunningham to tight end Marshon Ford on a trick play that featured a couple of laterals before making its way back to Cunningham for the downfield toss.
As it did for much of the night, UVa kept its lead despite failing to deliver the final knockout blow. A long drive that spanned 69 yards over 16 plays and seven minutes and 48 seconds ended with a 23-yard Brian Delaney field goal.
The drive increased UVa’s lead to 24-17 with just 10:01 left to play, but it didn’t ice the game.
Then came Grant’s momentum-changing strip, forcing a turnover that led to a UVa touchdown and a 14-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
“Hustle plays matter,” Mendenhall said. “We’re continuing drive home to our team that how hard they try usually leads at some point, at some time, to positive plays that’ll help our team.”
Virginia’s performance was far from perfect, but the defense made critical plays, the offense moved the ball efficiently for most of the night, and the Cavaliers added a notch to their win column.
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