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Thomas: Four years after last-second victory, Notre Dame and Virginia meet again

| Friday, September 27, 2019

Entering his third drive as the starting quarterback for Notre Dame, DeShone Kizer had run a total of eight plays for a combined 23 yards. Down by one, with 80 yards to go and less than two minutes on the clock to do it, the odds of a game-winning drive seemed unlikely. Kizer targeted star wide receiver Will Fuller on the first three plays of the drive, connecting with him once. The second connection he made with Fuller on that drive was one that will live on in Irish history for some time. 

With 19 seconds on the clock, Kizer took the snap. He shuffled for a moment before sliding to his left; with 15 ticks remaining, Kizer uncorked a bomb down the sideline to a streaking Fuller, hitting him in stride for the game-winning touchdown with twelve seconds to go in the game. A completion between these two players seems unlikely to happen again soon, with Kizer currently the backup signal caller for the Oakland Raiders and Fuller the Houston Texan’s second-best wide receiver. However, their connection back in 2015 led to a stunning come-from-behind victory over the Virginia Cavaliers, who the Irish will meet on the field again on Saturday. 

Kizer had replaced starter Malik Zaire due to a fractured ankle and looked overwhelmed by the moment until his clutch throw in the waning seconds of the game. The play prompted the iconic photo of a lanky Virginia fan in the front row, slumped at the waist over the wall. As classic as that moment was, the Irish are hoping they don’t experience an injury to their star quarterback and a last minute drive to triumph this time around versus the Cavaliers. It’s the third time the Irish have met Virginia on the gridiron; they are 2-0 all-time, emerging victorious 36-13 in 1989. It will be the first time they meet in South Bend.

However, the circumstances are far different this time around. In ’89, the Cavaliers were a solid team but were simply outclassed by the defending national champions. In 2015, the Cavaliers were hapless for much of the year, and the Irish let the game stay closer than it should have been. The Cavaliers finished that year 4-8, while the Irish would finish 10-2 in the regular season, their two losses coming by a total of four points.

This year, the Cavaliers roll into Notre Dame Stadium as the No. 18-ranked team in the country, boasting a 4-0 record. The Irish are coming off a gut-wrenching loss to No. 3 Georgia and will have to avoid an emotional letdown against the Cavaliers. Virginia didn’t look impressive in rallying from a 17-7 halftime deficit against Old Dominion, but the victory is indicative of their resiliency, a quality they’ve earned via three comeback victories this season.

The Cavaliers turnaround started last year when they started 6-2 last year before fading down the stretch to a 7-5 record. However, a 28-0 blowout win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl signaled to the rest of the country that Virginia might be back for real in 2019. They defeated a talented Florida State team and thumped Pittsburgh, who just upended No. 22 UCF. 

With the star power at the top of the rankings, and the collapse of squads like Michigan, Utah and UCF, Virginia’s 4-0 record — their best start in 15 years — and a top-20 ranking has not cracked many headlines. However, the fact is they are favored to win the ACC Coastal and face Clemson in the ACC championship. With Notre Dame, the only currently-ranked opponent on their schedule, they certainly have the ability to crack 10 wins this year and challenge for an elite bowl game berth. 

Still, this game has avoided headlines. With an upcoming high-profile rivalry game against USC, last week’s trip to Georgia and a showdown against Michigan in the Big House, this Virginia game has gotten lost in the shadows, much like the Cavaliers have been overlooked on the national scale. Four years ago, Notre Dame rolled into Virginia, expecting an easy victory over a squad that would struggle to a 4-8 record. They barely escaped then. Come Saturday, the Irish better be ready for a battle, because the Cavaliers are entering as a ranked and undefeated team on a roll, and they’re ready to stun the college football world with a big-time victory.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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