Virginia’s offense nothing but offensive without its QB in Notre Dame rout

© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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Notre Dame’s last chance at a statement win this season came and went Saturday night and, if anything, the No. 9 Irish may have made their 28-3 win at Virginia look too easy. Notre Dame shut down the Cavaliers’ vaunted offense as it tried to find some of its usual potency without star quarterback Brennan Armstrong, held out by a ribs injury.

“I don’t think we were ever in trouble tonight,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said to ABC after the game. “I think our kids played fairly consistent. They’ll have to pick it up the next couple of weeks, but they’ve won 9 out of 10 games and are playing really good football.”

Virginia freshman quarterback Jay Woolfolk offered an admirable effort in replacing Armstrong, but he could not muster much against the Irish (9-1). Virginia gained just five first downs in the first half, while Notre Dame averaged more than seven yards per play in that stretch to stake itself to a 21-0 lead at the break.

Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer scored what was technically the game-winning touchdown in the first quarter, coming one play after junior running back Kyren Williams fought to convert not only a fourth down but gain 14 yards, part of his game-high 70 yards on 13 carries, including a 22-yard touchdown in the second quarter that featured just about every skill an NFL front office might look for in draft preparations.

He showed patience to not run into a crowded line, vision to find a cutback lane, strength to break an arm tackle and balance to toe along the sideline into the end zone. As Williams routinely amazes anyone watching him, such a display has become almost normal.

Between Mayer’s and Williams’ scores, the Irish took to the air to build the first-half lead, in a more literal fashion than is usually meant when such phrasing is used in football conversations. Freshman running back Logan Diggs stiff-armed a defender, a la Williams, to get to the edge on a rush and then hurdled another to keep going.

A few plays later, senior receiver Braden Lenzy took a screen pass and leaped up and into a pair of Cavaliers defenders at the goal line to get into the end zone. The willingness to put his body on the line was a habit for Lenzy in Charlottesville, notable for Notre Dame a week after it lost fifth-year receiver Avery Davis for the season to an ACL tear.

“[Lenzy] was gritty tonight,” Kelly said. “… The touchdown catch, laughing into the end zone, even the [pass interference penalty Lenzy later drew], fighting back for the football, those are gritty catches. I use that word in a sense of, you can easily give up on those plays, but he got himself dirty tonight. That goes a long way to winning football games.”

Lenzy finished with 23 yards on three catches, while Mayer caught seven passes for 84 yards and Diggs took nine carries for 64 yards.

Those repeated offensive highlights only served to remind of the shootout that could have been. Virginia entered the weekend averaging 38.9 points per game, reaching at least 48 points in three straight games. The Cavaliers had scored on 41 of their 47 red-zone trips, an 87.2 percent success rate. They gained 545.2 yards per game.

But that was all with Armstrong, who throws for nearly 400 yards per game while also posing as a running threat.

“Virginia didn’t have much to lose,” Kelly said to ABC. “They didn’t play their best player, so we had to prepare for a lot of different things. Going on the road, playing against a Power Five team, it’s never easy. We did enough tonight, we played really good defense, did enough on the offensive side of the ball.”

Without Armstrong, Virginia’s offense had no sense of the explosiveness or rhythm that has defined it thus far this season. Even when the Cavaliers found some second-half success, their drives only stalled in plus territory, never genuinely sniffing the end zone.

They went 1-of-2 in the red zone, obviously only scoring a field goal. Their 278 total yards came mostly once Notre Dame enjoyed a three-touchdown lead. Woolfolk went 18-of-33 for 196 yards.

None of the debacle was Woolfolk’s fault, per se. The Irish defense came to play, dialed up to face Armstrong and not dialing back when Armstrong’s ribs kept him from playing.

But it was far from the entertainment Saturday night once promised, something Notre Dame may have wished it would be more than anyone else.

Armstrong went through a light version of a pregame warmup before cutting it short on Saturday night. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:53 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 6-yard pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Virginia 0. (6 plays, 43 yards, 2:40)

Second Quarter
14:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Lenzy 4-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Virginia 0. (7 plays, 60 yards, 3:28)
4:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 22-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Virginia 0. (9 plays, 80 yards, 4:13)

Third Quarter
1:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Austin 15-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Virginia 0. (5 plays, 61 yards, 2:20)

Fourth Quarter
12:16 — Virginia field goal. Brendan Farrell 34 yards. Notre Dame 28, Virginia 3. (10 plays, 59 yards, 4:25)