SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Not often does a 285-pound defensive tackle running 48 yards provide the needed offensive spark, but junior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa lumbering that far changed No. 10 Notre Dame’s fortunes on Saturday in its 35-20 win against No. 18 Virginia (3-1). His fumble return to within seven yards of the end zone highlighted a dominant performance from the Irish defensive line.
Tagovailoa-Amosa was gifted a third-quarter fumble recovery, forced by senior Jamir Jones, and then took off down the field, not able to outrun Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins the final seven yards.
“Jamir Jones stepped up, stepped in, made a big play attacking the QB,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “I was just in the right place at the right time. … That’s the dream right there, I got to finish that dream and get into the end zone.”
Even without getting into the end zone, Tagovailoa-Amosa produced more positive yardage than Notre Dame (3-1) had managed on its three previous possessions, much more. Those had all gone three-and-out, gaining a net total of two yards. Virginia’s defense was dictating the game while its offense squeaked to a 17-14 lead.
Then Tagovailoa-Amosa nearly scored.
Two carries from Notre Dame senior running back Tony Jones later and the Irish had a lead they would not relinquish. The next score came from another defensive conversion, this time senior end Ade Ogundeji reaching the end zone from 23 yards after recovering a fumble forced by senior end Julian Okwara, the fourth of five Irish sacks in the third quarter.
As much as Ogundeji’s touchdown gave Notre Dame a 28-17 lead, the five sacks made it clear the Cavaliers would not be making a comeback. After Perkins carved up the Irish defense for 235 passing yards and two touchdowns in the first half, he managed only 29 yards in the third and 99 in the second half on 12-of-21 passing with two interceptions and no scores. On 20 Virginia snaps in the third quarter, Perkins was sacked on a quarter of them, losing 31 yards.
Not that Notre Dame’s offense was firing on all cylinders. For the second week in a row, the Irish did not gain a first down in the third quarter. Failing to recognize an onside kick opportunity gave the Cavaliers an extra possession. A muffed punt then handed Virginia excellent field position. Senior quarterback Ian Book attempted two passes, completing both for all of seven yards. Six rushes earned 13 yards.
“I’m not standing up here and telling you we have found ourselves offensively,” Kelly said. “We have not. We’re far from where we want to be. We have a lot of things to sort out and figure out offensively, personnel.”
To take some of the load off that defense late, the Irish relied on its ground game, handing it off 15 times in the fourth quarter, gaining 120 yards, while Book attempted only three more passes, completing two of them for 28 yards. Senior running back Tony Jones scored from 30 yards to ease any lingering concerns.
“All good teams have to lean on their run game once in a while,” Jones said. “It showed today.”
Despite the low outputs, Notre Dame’s ground game found staggered effectiveness early, as well, providing both Irish first-quarter touchdowns. Jones ran through tackles for a six-yard score before sophomore C’Bo Flemister followed a 13-yard catch with an 11-yard carry into the end zone, the crux of his 40 total yards on the afternoon.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
It may have been more of a statement if Tagovailoa-Amosa had been able to get to the end zone, but the sack-fumble-return sequence changed things irreversibly, nonetheless. For that matter, Tagovailoa-Amosa’s lack of scoring came out of a necessary abundance of caution.
“Don’t fumble,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said when asked what he was thinking while lumbering those 48 yards. “Don’t fumble. Obviously, [Perkins] is a fast QB, so I was making sure I didn’t get hawked down, which I did. I was just making sure I had security of the ball.”
That play made it clear what kind of third quarter Perkins was in for. That was the second Cavaliers drive after halftime, and it was his second sack taken. On only one of their six third-quarter drives did Perkins not get sacked and Okwara still pressured him on that third down.
After he had effectively stumped Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea in the first half, Perkins was halted just as effectively.
“The ball comes out really quick. Obviously, Perkins played flawlessly in the first half,” Kelly said. “The ball came out accurately, on time, made great throws. We wanted to make sure that the pocket collapsed on him and made it difficult for him to get outside and improvise. We stuck with our game plan.
“I challenged our staff to be stubborn and persistent and we did that. It broke through for us in a manner that we saw. A lot of those sacks really came together in the second half.”
The real turning point came with whatever adjustments Lea made at halftime, but because of that perfectly-executed onside kick, it took a beat for them to be seen.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Rarely will a defensive touchdown not get this recognition, and Ogundeji’s fumble return for a score indeed warrants it. As much as his fumble return, though, Okwara forcing the fumble was the actual play of the game. It was his third sack and second forced fumble, having recovered the first himself. He added two more quarterback hurries, finally making the type of impact expected in the preseason. One of those plays leading directly to a touchdown was simply the manifestation of such.
“I love what Julian did,” Kelly said. “He got back to playing really physical football. I think Julian would tell you that maybe the whole sack thing was too much of a personal thing and he got back to playing physical football and within the realm of the defense. It really showed itself today and he’s going to take off from here.”
STAT OF THE GAME
Okwara’s three sacks led the way to Notre Dame’s eight total. Senior end Khalid Kareem had 2.5, Jamir Jones had the one, and junior tackle Kurt Hinish, sophomore end Ovie Oghoufo and freshman tackle Jacob Lacey each had half a sack.
Notice, all eight of those came from the defensive line. All five quarterback hurries came from the line, as well: Okwara with two; Kareem, Ogundeji and Tagovailoa-Amosa with one apiece. Of the 13 Irish tackles for loss, 11 came from the line.
Notre Dame did not need to manufacture pressure, which in turn allowed it to keep Perkins reined in.
“We had to get a great pass rush and we had to contain him with our front four,” Kelly said.
That all also played a role in stopping Virginia’s rushing game in its tracks. Even once adjusting for sacks, the Cavaliers gained only 59 yards on 21 carries, a 2.81 yards per rush average.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
The Irish had not found a confident run game yet this season. Facing another genuinely-tough front-seven, there was little expectation Saturday would see a change in that regard. Running backs accounted for 11 carries for 41 yards in the first half. Status quo seemed to be at hand.
Then Jones got going.
“What we did is we gave Tony Jones a break,” Kelly said. “So he ran hard in the second half. When we got C’Bo (Flemister) in there and we got [freshman Jahmir Smith] in there, it gave (Jones) a chance to run the way he can run, and he’s a hard runner.”
Jones finished with 131 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries. Only once was he stopped behind the line of scrimmage, as the clock dwindled toward halftime for a two-yard loss. On a day when Book decidedly did not have an efficient, and hardly-effective, performance, Jones carried Notre Dame’s offense.
Like any running back with common sense, he directed the credit toward his offensive line.
“They did great,” Jones said. “Coach challenged them this week. Coach wanted us to run the ball like how we did week one. In my opinion, they did it.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Tagovailoa-Amosa on so many members of the defensive line making plays in the backfield:
“Seeing everybody having fun, smiling, it’s contagious. My mom always says, ‘Smiles are contagious.’ If you’re on the sideline and everybody is smiling, you want to smile, too. It’s all part of the fun.”
10:58 — Virginia touchdown. Joe Reed 6-yard pass from Bryce Perkins. Brian Delaney PAT good. Virginia 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 69 yards, 4:02)
4:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 5-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Virginia 7. (13 plays, 75 yards, 6:23)
0:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 11-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Virginia 7. (4 plays, 54 yards, 1:36)
8:07 — Virginia field goal. Delaney 32 yards. Notre Dame 14, Virginia 10. (16 plays, 61 yards, 7:11)
0:43 — Virginia touchdown. Hasise Dubois 16-yard pass from Perkins. Delaney PAT good. Virginia 17, Notre Dame 14. (5 plays, 76 yards, 1:02)
9:20 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jones 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Virginia 17. (2 plays, 7 yards, 0:30)
1:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ade Ogundeji 23-yard fumble return. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Virginia 17.
10:28 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jones 30-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Virginia 17. (5 plays, 71 yards, 2:04)
6:28 — Virginia field goal. Delaney 27 yards. Notre Dame 35, Virginia 20. (12 plays, 65 yards, 4:00)