Virginia welcomed Louisville to Scott Stadium Saturday afternoon following the week-long postponement of the ACC contest. The Cavaliers (3-4, 3-4 ACC) defeated the Cardinals (2-6, 1-6 ACC) 31-17 on the shoulders of 263 total yards and three total touchdowns from sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong. Notably, Louisville came to Charlottesville without stalwarts in junior wide receiver Tutu Atwell and sophomore running back Javian Hawkins due to undisclosed injury or COVID-19 related issues.
“I told myself coming into the game not to be timid,” Armstrong said. “It felt good, honestly.”
Virginia started the game with the ball for the first time this season, but was unable to capitalize as the Cavalier offense went three-and-out to start the afternoon. While Louisville initially pieced together a solid drive, junior linebacker Noah Taylor intercepted a pass by Cardinal junior quarterback Malik Cunningham in the red zone and took it 85 yards for a touchdown.
On Louisville’s ensuing drive, the Cardinals were energized by a 50-yard rush by linebacker-turned-running back freshman Kameron Wilson. Nonetheless, a sack by Virginia sophomore linebacker Nick Jackson two plays later helped stall the Cardinal drive and force a 48-yard field-goal attempt. Sophomore kicker James Turner subsequently drilled the kick to cut the Cavalier lead to 4.
The Cavaliers responded with a strong drive of their own, as Armstrong used his legs to extend plays and the Virginia run game started to roll. Following a holding penalty on Louisville sophomore cornerback Kei’Trel Clark and a 21-yard pass from Armstrong to freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., Virginia entered the red zone for the first time. On the next play, Armstrong found senior tight end Tony Poljan wide open, but as Poljan reached for the end zone, he fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Cardinals.
While Louisville was unable to capitalize on the Virginia turnover, the Cardinals were still able to flip the field and force the Cavalier offense to start at their own 16-yard line. However, after two strong runs by Armstrong and Taulapapa, the Louisville defense forced another turnover as a poor pass by Armstrong was picked off by Cardinal senior defensive back Marlon Character.
On Louisville’s ensuing drive, Cunningham took matters into his own hands, rushing for 55 yards and capping off a four-play drive with a 19-yard touchdown. The Montgomery, Ala. product effortlessly weaved through the Cavalier defense, providing a much needed spark to a Cardinal offense that had been stifled thus far and catapulting Louisville to a 10-7 lead with 10:14 left in the first half.
Nonetheless the Cavaliers soundly responded. Armstrong found Davis Jr. on a 20-yard pass to kick off the drive and pieced together a nine-play, 67-yard drive ended by a hard-nosed eight-yard touchdown rush by Armstrong. Junior transfer running back Ronnie Walker Jr. also got in on the action, providing an 11-yard rush on the first carry of his Virginia career.
“He’s becoming game ready, and so today was just a next step in a bigger role for him,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said on Walker Jr. “Really good timing for us that we have him down the stretch.”
While the Cardinals looked to threaten once again, a holding penalty on redshirt freshman offensive lineman Renato Brown forced Louisville into a first-and-19. The Cavalier defense subsequently held strong and a sack by senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden two plays later forced the Cardinals to punt. Virginia subsequently went three-and-out on their next possession, but were able to stifle the Cardinals in the final 30 seconds of the half and head to the locker room up 14-10.
While Louisville was only able to put up 10 points in the first half, Cunningham gave the Cavalier defense all sorts of problems, rushing for 158 yards and one touchdown. On the offensive side of things, Virginia was uninspiring but methodical, recovering from two poor turnovers to put two touchdowns on the board.
“We struggled all night tackling [Cunningham], keeping him contained,” Mendenhall said. “He really did an amazing job.”
Although Cunningham initially looked to pick up where he left off in the second half, the Virginia defense held strong following his initial 14-yard rush, forcing a fourth-and 2. Louisville elected to go for it, but the Cavalier defensive line stood its ground, forcing a turnover on downs. On Virginia’s ensuing possession, Armstrong led a 48-yard drive energized by a 33-yard pass to senior wide receiver Terrell Jana and capped off by a nine-yard pass to Davis Jr. to extend the Cavaliers’ lead to 11.
The teams subsequently exchanged three-and-outs, but on Louisville’s next possession, the Cardinals were able to cut into the Virginia lead. The Cardinal offense engineered a five-play, 88-yard drive en route to a one-yard touchdown rush from Cunningham that was set up by a 46-yard reception by sophomore tight end Marshon Ford. Virginia responded with a long drive of its own — stretching across 16 plays — but was only able to milk three points out of it after stalling just before the Louisville 10-yard line.
The Cavaliers found their chance to break the game wide open on the ensuing Cardinal possession. On the third play of the drive, Cunningham broke out on a 27 yard run, but as he was tackled, senior cornerback Nick Grant ripped the ball out of Cunningham’s hands and recovered it at the Virginia 35-yard line. Virginia then capitalized upon a 29-yard pass from Armstrong to junior halfback Billy Kemp to construct a 65-yard drive en route to a nine-yard touchdown run by Armstrong and a 31-17 lead with 4:29 left to play.
On the Cardinals’ next possession, senior wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick fumbled following a 13-yard reception, giving the ball right back to the Cavaliers. While Virginia would sputter offensively for the remaining four minutes of the clash, the Cavalier defense stood strong, sealing a 31-17 victory.
“The three turnovers and the two fourth-down stops [were] the difference,” Mendenhall said.
Along with a solid performance by Armstrong, the Cavaliers benefited from the return of Davis Jr., who had four receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, Jackson and fellow inside linebacker in senior Zane Zandier were outstanding, combining for 18 total tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
“I love my team, really impressed with Brennan and his leadership, and yeah the stage is set for the next game, that’s where our focus will be,” Mendenhall said.
This focus will be directed towards Virginia’s single non-conference game of the season against FCS foe Abilene Christian in Charlottesville. Kick off at Scott Stadium is set for 3:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast live across various regional sports networks, including MASN in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.