Defense dominates as Irish rumble to 35-20 victory over Virginia
Aidan Thomas | Sunday, September 29, 2019
Junior running back Tony Jones Jr. may have been the headliner of the Notre Dame offensive attack on Saturday against No. 18 Virginia, but he did not deliver the biggest sprint of the game; that honor belongs to defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who picked up a fumble and returned it 48 yards, coming just seven yards shy of his first career touchdown. To the 285-pound junior, he might have delivered the fastest run of the game as well.
“I figure I broke 21 miles per hour,” Tagovailoa-Amosa joked with media following the game.
Jones echoed those sentiments, saying he was impressed with that run.
“I always knew Myron was fast, but I didn’t know he was moving like that,” Jones said.
The big fumble return gave a struggling Notre Dame offense a short field to work with. Jones got the box score recognition for the Tagovailoa’s work, punching the ball in from two yards out one play later. The score gave the Irish a 21-17 lead, putting them in front for good. Seemingly energized by the momentum change, the Irish put on a show for the rest of the second half, shutting down a red-hot Virginia offense and putting up two more touchdowns as they cruised to a 35-20 victory Saturday evening at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame certainly entered this game on upset alert, with the potential of an underrated opponent in Virginia and the emotional letdown of their loss to Georgia providing a dangerous combination. However, head coach Brian Kelly was not about to let them overlook their matchup with the Cavaliers.
“It was not an easy week, but we challenged our football team that this would be a defining game. We challenged them, and they accepted the challenge and responded,” he said. “They were exactly what I wanted them to be. They were determined, they were persistent, they didn’t panic.”
Notre Dame certainly faced some adversity Saturday. Virginia came out with guns blazing, taking it to the Irish on a seven-play, 69-yard drive in just over four minutes. They faced just one third down on the drive, turning that play into a touchdown as Virginia’s dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins connected with senior wide receiver Joe Reed. Perkins also hit Reed for a 43-yard gain during the drive that brought the Cavaliers into the red zone.
The Irish would respond, but their scoring drive came a little slower. They converted four third-downs on the drive, with Book passing for a pair of first downs, and Jones rushing for two first downs, capping off the drive with a six-yard touchdown run to knot the score at seven points apiece.
The Notre Dame defense showed life on the next drive, as Julian Okwara overpowered his man on a blitz, sacking Perkins and forcing and recovering a fumble. Two Virginia penalties helped the Irish breeze down the field before sophomore running back C’Bo Flemister rolled into the end zone from 11 yards out to push the Irish in front.
It was the last time the Irish would score in the half, as Virginia slowly chipped away at the lead. After a marathon 16-play drive that chewed up 7:11 of game time, the Cavaliers settled for a 32-yard field goal to cut the lead to four points. The Irish defense could not get off the field, forcing fourth down once and two third downs of seven and 11 yards, respectively. However, the Cavaliers would convert each time. The Irish brought a steady stream of blitz packages against a weaker Virginia offensive line, daring Perkins to beat them with his arm. Perkins seemed primed to do just that, going 18-22 for 235 yards in the first half. He led a last-minute touchdown drive to give Virginia the lead before halftime. Getting the ball with 1:45 on the clock, Perkins connected with junior wide receiver Hasise Dubois for 39 yards and Reed for 10. A pass interference call pushed the Cavaliers to the 16-yard line, where the Perkins-Dubois connection shined again, as Dubois made an impressive snag for the touchdown.
Halftime was supposed to be a chance for the Irish to catch their breath and prepare to start on offense in the second half, but the Cavaliers shocked the sellout crowd by recovering an onside kick to take possession at midfield. Virginia looked in prime position to make the game a two-possession game, but the Irish defense flexed their muscles, holding Virginia to just 10 yards on the drive and forcing a punt.
“We have to keep playing, and our defense did and came up with a big stop there,” Kelly said. “You don’t have much time to sit down and talk. Just keep playing, be determined, be stubborn and we’ll figure it out.”
The Irish defense needed to keep grinding in the second half, as the offense struggled to generate much momentum. After being pinned on their two-yard line, they would gain just four yards and punt it back, giving the Cavaliers the ball on the Irish 45-yard line. Three plays later, Tagovailoa came up with his huge play. Senior defensive lineman Jamir Jones delivered a booming hit on Perkins and the ball popped loose, setting the stage for Tagovailoa’s 48-yard return.
The defense continued to show out in the second half, holding Virginia to 11 yards on their next three drives combined, allowing the offense time to lift themselves out of the mud.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Kelly said. “These guys really enjoy playing with each other. They got challenged today and they didn’t flinch, they didn’t blink and they played really good football in the second half.”
As the offense continued to struggle, punting on their next possession, the defense stepped up once more, as Okwara drilled Perkins again, forcing another fumble which senior defensive lineman Ade Ogundeji scooped up and trucked into the end zone for a 28-17 lead. After trading punts, senior safety Alohi Gilman picked off Perkins at the Notre Dame 29, setting up the Irish for one final productive drive. The running game got untracked, with Tony Jones racing for 28 yards on one carry, and then sprinting for 30 more for a game-sealing touchdown run one play later.
Backup tight end Tommy Tremble sprung a block that opened a hole for Jones, who racked up 131 yards on the ground at over seven yards per carry. Despite how pleased he was with the rushing attack, Jones was quick to express confidence in quarterback Ian Book and the passing game.
“To be honest, our team can pass the ball, run the ball, we can do anything,” he said. “This game showed that because we passed the ball well in the first half, and we ran the ball well in the second half.”
Ian Book threw for 165 yards, but he didn’t find the end zone and seemed rattled at times scrambling outside of the pocket, including getting flagged for two intentional grounding penalties.
Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton would ice the cake with one final turnover for the Irish defense, firing up the home crowd with a slick diving pick on Virginia’s final drive. Notre Dame used four different rushers to run out the last four minutes of the clock and seal the victory. Overall, the Irish forced five turnovers on three fumbles and two interceptions; they scored 28 points off those turnovers.
Coming off last week‘s emotional loss, Notre Dame needed a statement win against Virginia. Yet, they still have their eyes on one thing.
“We want to compete for a national championship,” Jones said. “We can accomplish anything.”