CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia led at the end of each of the first three quarters Saturday against Louisville. And even as the Cavaliers made key defensive plays against a short-handed Cardinals squad and moved the ball efficiently on offense, they struggled to deliver a knockout blow.
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 runs with the game in the balance, cornerback Nick Grant set up the knockout blow UVA had been searching for.
Safety D’Angelo Amos wrestled Cunningham toward the ground, as the duo collided with Grant. The senior corner grabbed hold of Cunningham and ripped the ball from his arms, creating a turnover to halt Louisville’s attempt to tie the game.
“It went from coaches furious on the headset because we weren’t tackling him very well to elation all within like a split second,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers marched down the field on their ensuing drive, punching the ball into the end zone from 9 yards out on a Brennan Armstrong rush. The score put the Cavaliers up by 14, and they held on for the 31-17 victory, their second consecutive triumph.
UVA (3-4, 3-4 ACC) started slowly, 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. Taylor caught the ball in the middle of the field, raced to his right and outran everyone for an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown.
The Cardinals responded, 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 fumbled. Louisville recovered, and the rough hit knocked Poljan out for the rest of the game.
After their fumble, the Cavs’ next drive ended with an even worse turnover. An errant Armstrong toss went directly to safety Marlon Character. This time, the Cardinals converted the Virginia mistake into points.
Louisville drove 59 yards in four plays, ending the drive with a 19-yard rushing touchdown from Cunningham, giving the Cardinals a 10-7 lead.
But the lead was short-lived for Louisville.
Virginia marched down the field, leaning on its rushing attack. Indiana transfer and former Hopewell High star Ronnie Walker Jr. received his first carry for UVA, rushing once for 11 yards. Armstrong capped off the drive with an 8-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 in the first half, the Cavaliers seemed close to pulling away in the second, but Cunningham 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 9-yard touchdown toss.
With a 21-10 lead, UVA forced another stop and received the ball at its 40. Conservative play calling and mediocre execution led to a three-and-out.
Five plays later, the Cardinals celebrated a 1-yard rushing touchdown from Cunningham to cut the deficit to 21-17 with 2:49 left in the third quarter.
As it did for much of the night, UVA kept its lead despite failing to deliver the knockout blow. A long drive that spanned 69 yards over 16 plays and nearly 8 minutes ended with a 23-yard Brian Delaney field goal.
Then came Grant’s momentum-changing strip, forcing the key turnover that led to a UVA touchdown and 14-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
“Hustle plays matter,” Mendenhall said. “We’re continuing to drive home to our team that how hard they try usually leads, at some point, to positive plays that’ll help our team.”
Louisville 3 7 7 0 — 17
Virginia 7 7 7 10 — 31
UVA—N.Taylor 85 interception return (Delaney kick), 7:13.
LOU—FG Turner 48, 3:59.
LOU—Cunningham 19 run (Turner kick), 10:14.
UVA—Armstrong 8 run (Delaney kick), 6:03.
UVA—Davis 9 pass from Armstrong (Delaney kick), 9:58.
LOU—Cunningham 1 run (Turner kick), 2:49.
UVA—FG Delaney 23, 10:01.
UVA—Armstrong 9 run (Delaney kick), 4:29.
First downs 18 21
Rushes-yards 39-317 42-165
Passing 161 203
Comp-Att-Int 13-21-1 15-23-1
Return Yards 63 79
Punts-Avg. 3-36.3 4-42.5
Fumbles-Lost 2-2 1-1
Penalties-Yards 7-64 3-25
Time of Possession 29:28 30:32
Rushing–Louisville, Cunningham 20-197, J.Mitchell 7-76, Burkley 12-44. Virginia, Armstrong 15-60, Simpson 12-50, Taulapapa 8-32, Walker 5-20, Kemp 2-3.
Passing–Louisville, Cunningham 13-21-1-161. Virginia, Armstrong 15-23-1-203.
Receiving–Louisville, D.Fitzpatrick 5-71, B.Smith 4-25, Ford 1-46, Marshall 1-9, Watkins 1-5, Burkley 1-5. Virginia, Davis 4-74, Jana 3-46, Kemp 3-46, Kelly 2-6, Poljan 1-18, Simpson 1-7, Starling 1-6.