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Irish whip Cavaliers in Charlottesville shellacking

| Sunday, November 14, 2021

The news got scary for Notre Dame before it got better.

With defensive captains Kyle Hamilton, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Drew White not dressed for their clash with Virginia, the Irish defense was severely depleted. Against a Cavaliers offense averaging 39 points a game, that was a major concern. But then UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong, questionable all week, did not dress, and the matchup evened out. Virginia started John Woolfolk, who became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Cavaliers since 1977. And with a depleted offense facing an injury-riddled defense, the storyline shifted to Notre Dame’s improved offense against a porous Virginia defense. 

Notre Dame poured on the pressure early and cruised to the finish line in a 28-3 victory over the Cavaliers. With No. 8 Oklahoma losing, the Irish positioned themselves for another small jump in the College Football Playoff rankings. Notre Dame received a balanced offensive effort. Graduate quarterback Jack Coan threw for just 132 yards on 15-20 passing, but he had three touchdowns to just one interception. 

Offense shows out in balanced effort

Coan continued to perform well in the up-tempo offense, going 12-13 for 109 yards on dropbacks of 2.5 seconds or less. He was 3-7 for 23 yards and an interception on all other efforts. Meanwhile, the rushing attack was led by junior running back Kyren Williams (14 carries, 70 yards), but Notre Dame got contributions from just about everywhere. Receivers Braden Lenzy and Lorenzo Styles Jr. both ripped off chunk plays while running backs Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree effectively spelled Williams to the tune of 96 yards on 15 carries. 

Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer led the receiving corps with seven receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s a freak,” Kelly said, “We targeted him a lot today.”

Kevin Austin Jr. and Lenzy each had three receptions and a touchdown grab, as the seniors led a wide receiving room that lost Avery Davis to injury this week. Lenzy also contributed by drawing a pass interference call and notching a 31-yard run as well. He caught his touchdown reception in the backfield and finished his scoring effort strong through a pair of defenders.

“Braden Lenzy was gritty tonight. He finished his run strong; he had a hard touchdown run,” Kelly said. “He got himself dirty. That goes a long way to win football games.”

Short-handed defense dominates Cavaliers

Defensively, Notre Dame put together a fantastic effort. Senior linebacker Bo Bauer had a few major impact plays, including two sacks, both on third down. He also had a pass breakup on second down — all three plays stalled out promising Virginia drives, keeping a comfortable cushion in the scoreline. Senior safety DJ Brown ended the game with a pick of his own, as Notre Dame made it two consecutive weeks without allowing a touchdown.

The Irish also received some contributions from deeper on the depth chart. Sophomore Rylie Mills notched a pair of sacks, moving to defensive end for the game after graduate student starter Tagovailoa-Amosa was ruled out with a 101-degree fever. 

Kelly joked about the good issues that Mills’ effort created in terms of depth chart competition for the Irish.

“We made the really wise move to switch him to defensive end and he answered the bell,” Kelly said, then wryly adding, ”That’s kind of a good thing — he earned the right to stay there [at defensive end.]”

Sophomore Ramon Henderson, making his first career start, collected his first interception as well, to preserve the first-half shutout. Henderson switched from cornerback to safety on Tuesday. 

Irish dominate first half

Notre Dame moved the ball with ease at almost every moment in the first half. They scored on three of their four drives, with their only unfruitful effort being a turnover on downs just outside the red zone. After that, it was three straight touchdowns for the Irish, who diced a struggling Virginia defense with ease. 

The initial Irish drive featured a pair of third-down conversions, and they would have had another, had freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles not slipped after a short reception. Coan was stuffed on a sneak attempt. However, Notre Dame didn’t allow a first down, and the Irish soon got another chance to work. The Irish got a short field after a 14-yard UVA punt, and they immediately carved out 15 yards to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer. Notre Dame did face a fourth down later in the drive, but junior running back Kyren Williams had no issues in running for 14 yards up the gut. Coan hit Mayer for six yards and a touchdown on the next play for a 7-0 Notre Dame lead.

After Virginia’s second offensive possession netted them a loss of four yards, the Irish again got some nice field position. Setting up camp at their own 40-yard line, the Irish rolled 60 yards in seven plays for another score. The key play in this drive was a jaw-dropping 26-yard run from true freshman running back Logan Diggs. Diggs broke loose down the left sideline and hurdled a defender to polish off the effort. Senior receiver Braden Lenzy punctuated the drive with a four-yard touchdown reception. 

Needing a momentum shift, UVA finally started to move the ball on their third drive. They slugged towards the red zone but stalled out. The Cavaliers faked a 47-yard field goal attempt, but a scramble attempt for the first down was just short. Notre Dame took over and marched 80 yards on nine plays. The Irish broke out some offensive trickery on this drive, as wide receiver Lorenzo Style received a reverse handoff out of a two-back set, racing 30 yards. One play later, Williams broke a couple of tackles and broke out a wicked juke move on a 22-yard touchdown run. Henderson’s big interception allowed the Irish to bring the game to half with a 21-0 advantage. 

Is Notre Dame making a playoff case?

The second half didn’t feature as many offensive fireworks for the Irish, but the result never was in doubt. The Cavaliers marched down the field to start the half, but senior linebacker Bo Bauer came up with a big third-down sack. That pushed the Virginia field goal attempt back to 44 yards, and it was pushed wide right. Both offenses stalled for a bit afterward, but after UVA turned it over on downs once more late in the third quarter, the Irish polished the game off with a quick 61-yard drive. This one started with a 30-yard Braden Lenzy run on a double reverse, and it finished with Coan hitting Kevin Austin in the end zone on a 15-yard pass that the graduate transfer dropped in a bucket. 

The rest of the game was a formality. UVA notched a field goal to ruin the shutout, but that was about it. The game ended 28-3, as Notre Dame continues a late push to be a one-loss playoff team. Asked about whether he believed his team deserves a berth, Kelly was strong in his response.

“We’re better than we were in September and October,” he said. “We’re ascending as a football team — the eye test says this team is playing better, offensively and defensively.”

The Irish should certainly jump to at least eighth after Oklahoma’s loss, but they’ll need a little more chaos than that to crack the playoff field. They have two games remaining against unranked competition. Their home finale is next week at 2:30 p.m. against Georgia Tech.

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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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