Virginia converts Louisville mistakes into a key 31-17 victory

By Jerry Ratcliffe

uva louisville

UVA QB Brennan Armstrong celebrates a TD. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Louisville came to Charlottesville with a lot of baggage in tow. Not only were the Cardinals shorthanded due to Covid-19 issues, but have been haunted by ball security.

The one big thing Louisville had going for it was dual-threat quarterback Malik Cunningham, and on Saturday at UVA’s Scott Stadium, Cunningham was bringing back memories of his predecessor, former Heisman winner Lamar Jackson.

At the most critical juncture of the game, both Cunningham’s talent and Louisville’s turnover issues leapt to center stage.

Virginia had taken a 24-17 lead with 10 minutes left in the game. Louisville, which had moving the ball at will behind Cunningham’s evasive running ability, believed it had a chance to tie the game when it took over at its own 29.

On third-and-one, Cunningham took off on a 27-yard run, darting past Cavalier defenders and for a fleeting moment it appeared the ghost of Lamar Jackson was present.

UVA’s Nick Grant ain’t scared of no ghost. The senior cornerback saw teammate D’Angelo Amos tackle Cunningham, and also saw an opportunity.

“Cunningham was on an explosive play,” Grant said. “He was on the left and cut back to the right. I had a blocker on me and when [Cunningham] got to where I was, he tried to put his hand on [the blocker] and follow him. So, I pressed [the blocker] back into him and shed him. D’Angelo was already tackling him, so I saw it as an opportunity to go for the ball and create a havoc play.”

Havoc was the right description. Grant stripped the ball from the Louisville quarterback and UVA not only stopped the Cardinals key drive, but took possession at its own 35 with 8:22 to play.

Virginia’s subsequent drive was the key series of the game in sewing up a 31-17 victory over Louisville and keeping the momentum from an upset over No. 15 North Carolina two weeks ago.

If that was the key drive, then Billy Kemp IV was the key figure in securing the win.

The Cavaliers were facing a third-and-nine at their own 35 after getting practically nothing on the first two plays. Third down was critical because if UVA failed and punted, Louisville had plenty of time behind Cunningham, who had terrorized the Cavaliers defense all night long.

Wouldn’t you know it that Kemp was the guy to save the day. The ACC’s leading receiver had been fairly silent until his number was called.

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong found Kemp open underneath Louisville’s coverage, and Kemp, who is the Cavaliers’ version of New England’s Danny Amendola, weaved through a maze of Cardinals defenders for 31 huge yards and a first down at Louisville’s 35. Five plays later, Armstrong made a strong fake to running back Shane Simpson to the right, but kept the ball and ran to his left for a nine-yard touchdown that essentially iced the game with 4:17 to play.

“It went from coaches furious on the headset because [the defense] wasn’t tackling [Cunningham] very well, to elation, all within a split second,” Bronco Mendenhall said after watching his Cavaliers improve to 3-4 on the season with nonconference Abilene Christian (1-4) coming to town next Saturday. “Hustle plays matter (in reference to Amos/Grant stop and strip).”

They were the defensive heroes on that series, but Kemp donned his cape for the offense.

“It didn’t surprise me at all,” Mendenhall said. “I thought [Kemp] was the difference. It wasn’t just the plays he got … he himself was the difference in terms of what he did with the ball when he had it. He’s done that all year. I’m glad that (offensive coordinator) Robert Anae put the ball in his hands. It made the difference. That sequence was critical.”

Kemp had but three receptions, but that one counted big time. Armstrong, who threw for 203 yards and a touchdown, plus was Virginia’s leading rusher with 60 yards and two scores, remembered the play to Kemp well.

“That took a lot of pressure off us,” Armstrong said. “Once we hit that [third-and-nine], we were going to be sound from there. Billy’s always reliable. We had the call for him, got him the ball, and he made something happen and got the first down. We knew he was going to do that. He’s a strong player even when the tough situations come.”

Armstrong was tough as well. Heading into the game without one of his backups, Keytaon Thompson, the Cavaliers’ depth at the position was thin. With Ira Armstead out for the remainder of the season, senior Lindell Stone was the only other option. Stone is a decent passer but is not a running threat, so it was important for Armstrong to stay healthy.

Mendenhall determined there would be minimal risk and decided there would be no “called” quarterback runs, only scrambles when Armstrong felt it necessary. He rushed 15 times, absorbed a late hit out of bounds that cost Louisville, and trucked over a larger Louisville defender at the goal line for an earlier TD.

Virginia was well aware of Louisville being prone to turnovers coming into the game. The Cardinals, as explosive on offense as they have been, rank No. 115 in the nation in turnovers.

They lived up to that reputation against Virginia, losing two key fumbles and Cunningham being tagged for a pick six early in the game to give the Cavaliers a 7-0 lead.

For all the good that Cunningham did, passing for 161 yards and rushing for a career-high 197 yards and two scores, his two turnovers cost Louisville.

Linebacker Noah Taylor said Cunningham threw it right to him, and he was off to the races, 85 yards to paydirt. It was the longest interception return for a touchdown in UVA history by a linebacker, and tied for the third-longest pick six ever by a Cavalier.

“That was critical,” Mendenhall said. “We took the ball (on the coin flip) and were expecting a lot more success offensively. We went three-and-out after the decision I made to take the ball after winning the toss.

“That didn’t go as planned. Louisville was moving the ball considtely and they’re down in our red zone. That play was a critical turn of events and recaptured the momentum we were hopeful to orchestrate by my decision to open the game.”

Taylor, who has been limited in practice for the last four weeks, might not have been 100 percent when he made the pick, but he knew what he had to do.

“I got to make this a touchdown,” Taylor said afterward. “I looked to my left and I saw a lot of guys like Nick Jackson and Zane Zandier blocking for me, which I really appreciate.”

Zandier saw the pass go over his shoulder and saw Taylor haul it in and just started looking for the most dangerous threat to halt Taylor’s progress.

“I think their running back had a decent angle and I kind of just laid out trying to get as much as I could,” Zandier said. “It might have been a little close to a block in the back, but they didn’t call it, so it worked out pretty good. Being able to see Noah run down the sideline was absolutely awesome.”

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