CHARLOTTESVILLE - After picking up 15 yards on a scramble early on his team’s first possession of Saturday’s game, Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham found himself forced out of bounds on the Virginia sideline. That’s where the Cavaliers’ backup kicker, A.J. Mejia swiped Cunningham’s towel.
Cunningham animatedly pointed Mejia out to an official, who retrieved the rag.
After that, UVA decided to leave Cunningham’s towel alone and focus on taking away the football.
The Virginia defense forced three key turnovers and turned in two important fourth-down stops to negate Cunningham’s otherwise eye-popping effort, helping UVA to a 31-17 win.
“The three turnovers and the two fourth-down stops I thought were the difference. I think that changed the game,” said Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“I think that ultimately was the difference between both teams.”
Virginia (3-4, 3-4 ACC) didn’t have many answers for Cunningham’s mesmerizing mobility.
But it turned out, it had just enough.
Playing without the ACC’s leading rusher, Javian Hawkins, and its leading receiver, Tutu Atwell, Louisville got 358 total yards from Cunningham, the redshirt junior who did his best Lamar Jackson imitation to try to carry the Cardinals (2-6, 1-6).
A veritable one-man band, Cunningham made sweet music. He ran for an often-electrifying 197 yards and two touchdowns, and threw for another 161 yards.
“Their quarterback was scrambling, making a lot of plays himself,” said linebacker Zane Zandier. “I think we gave up a good amount of yards on defense, but we did a good job of keeping points to a minimum. I think those big plays helped, with turnovers, sacks, anyway we can help get the ball back to our offense. When you get plays like that, you’re always going to have a solid outcome.”
It was those big plays by Virginia’s defense — getting back to its havoc-inducing identity of last season — that determined Saturday’s outcome.
Linebacker Noah Taylor returned a first-quarter interception 85 yards for a touchdown, the longest such play in the ACC his season. Defensive tackle Mandy Alonso led a third-quarter, fourth-down stop near midfield.
In the fourth quarter, after Cunningham had taken off on yet another magical jaunt, breaking one tackle and sidestepping another, before spinning out of a third, cornerback Nick Grant wrestled the ball from his hands as he went down.
With Louisville down two scores and time running out, Zandier stripped the ball from wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick. Safety Antonio Clary recovered the fumble and sealed the win.
And on the Cardinals’ penultimate possession, the unit forced a Cunningham incompletion on fourth-and-2 at the UVA 38-yard line.
A year ago, Virginia averaged 7.1 tackles for loss, 3.3 sacks and 1.3 turnovers per game. They were a disruptive defense, making plays behind the line of scrimmage and winning the turnover battle.
This season, havoc had been hiding. The Cavaliers dynamic edge rushers, Taylor and Charles Snowden, had been steady but not impactful. Things began to turn in the team’s road loss at Miami. Snowden in particular had monster games against the Hurricanes and then in the upset win over North Carolina on Oct. 31 and Virginia’s defense looked, once again, like a unit that could take over a game.
It did it again Saturday, with six tackles for losses, four sacks and the three takeaways.
“I think we have a lot of guys that are flying around and making a lot of big plays right now,” said Zandier. “It always helps getting turnovers. It always helps getting sacks. It kind of sparks the defense. I think getting back to havoc is huge for us.”
The Cavaliers have now won two in a row, putting the sting and stink of their four-game losing streak well behind them. Their run may not be done. A pair of immensely winnable games are imminent — Abilene Christian visits Scott Stadium next Saturday and UVA goes to Florida State the following weekend — before ending the regular season with more challenging tests against Boston College and rival Virginia Tech.