Virginia loses heartbreaker against No. 5 Louisville
Cavaliers fall seconds short of signature ACC win
No. 5 Louisville relied on its sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Heisman Trophy favorite, to slip past Virginia by a score of 32-25 in the final seconds of Saturday’s contest. The Cavaliers (2-6, 1-3 ACC) defied the odds by sticking close with the Cardinals (7-1, 5-1 ACC) in a game that they were projected to lose by up to 34 points.
“We don’t focus much on the opponent, most people do,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “So if that is the No. 5 team in the country and that is the possible Heisman Trophy winner, then I’d say we are making progress in almost every area of our team.”
The Cavaliers got on the board first with a 27-yard field goal from junior placekicker Sam Hayward — marking the Cardinals’ first game this season where they didn’t score first.
The Cardinals got on the board when Jackson threw into the end zone for 15 yards to senior wide receiver Jamari Staples for a 7-3 lead.
One possession later, junior linebacker Micah Kiser recovered a fumble to give Virginia the ball at the Louisville 28-yard line. The ensuing drive only took two plays, as junior quarterback Kurt Benkert threw to junior wide receiver Doni Dowling for a touchdown, giving Virginia a 10-7 lead before the end of the first quarter.
Both teams were scoreless in the second quarter. Junior defensive end Andrew Brown sacked Jackson on a third down late in the quarter and Virginia went into the intermission with the 10-7 lead. The seven points that the Cardinals scored were the fewest they scored in any first half this season.
“We knew we had to contain [Jackson] because he can also run,” junior free safety Quin Blanding said. “We knew how to set the edge … we had that on lockdown.”
The start of the second half was promising for Virginia. After Louisville went three-and-out, Benkert threw to Dowling, who hurdled over a Louisville player to put the Cavaliers in scoring position. Benkert then hit sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus for a nine-yard touchdown to extend Virginia’s lead to 17-7.
“We just knew that we would have to execute,” Benkert said. “We knew that we would have to score points to win, and our defense played so well.”
However, Virginia’s game was marred by offensive opportunities they couldn’t capitalize on. Later in the third quarter, Blanding intercepted Jackson and returned the ball 30 yards to the Louisville 15-yard line. The offense sputtered in the end zone, and Hayward missed a 30-yard field goal wide left. Jackson and Louisville scored on the next Cardinal drive, cutting into Virginia’s lead with a touchdown and bringing the score to 17-14.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Cardinals regained the lead for the first time since the first quarter. The Cavaliers responded, as Kiser sacked Jackson again on a third down, marking the fifth Cavalier sack of the game — tied for the most the team gave up all season.
“Defensively, I think this was our best game,” Kiser said. “We were doing what Coach Mendenhall wanted us to do. Right now we’re just trusting the process.”
The Cardinals added onto their lead with 8:09 in the fourth quarter with a 32-yard field goal to make the score 24-17.
Scott Stadium’s sparse crowd was roaring during Virginia’s last drive. Down one touchdown with just under two minutes left in the game, Dowling caught a Benkert pass for his second touchdown of the afternoon. The coaching staff decided to go for the two-point conversion, and it paid dividends, as senior running back Albert Reid hauled in a pass to give the Cavaliers a 25-24 advantage.
“Coach believed that we could get it to go and [see] if we could win the game or not,” Reid said.
Benkert led his team to the touchdown after converting on a fourth-and-seven, and was responsible for both the touchdown pass and the pass for the eventual two-point conversion. Benkert recorded three touchdowns and 238 yards on the day.
“He’s learning to be resilient,” Mendenhall said. “He’s learning to be poised — he’s learning to finish games.”
However, it wasn’t long before heartbreak ensued for the Cavaliers. Jackson led a 75 yard drive, and fired a 29-yard touchdown pass — his fourth of the afternoon — to sophomore wide receiver Jaylen Smith with just 13 seconds left in the game. The Cardinals then earned the two-point conversion to bring the score to 32-25.
While Virginia beat the spread and ultimately made strides against the No. 5 team in the country, the last-minute loss didn’t settle well. The Cavaliers will now have to win out their last four games to make a bowl appearance.
“I felt like we made strides today but honestly I’m tired of making strides and not winning,” Reid said. “I feel like the next few games we’re going to play hard, and we’re going to win some games.”