The No. 18 Cavaliers came to South Bend with the right attitude Saturday, and did a lot of good things, but ultimately, too many mistakes buried their chance at an upset of the Fighting Irish, with Notre Dame coming out on top, 35-20. Apt comparisons have been made to the 2017 Miami game and the 2018 N.C. State game. Virginia went on the road in those contests as an underdog against good teams and took leads in the first half but ultimately lost by double digits, and that's exactly what happened in this one. This was a measuring stick game for the Wahoos to see how they stacked up against really good competition. Notre Dame nearly knocked off Georgia on the road last week. The Irish are no joke and will probably win at least 10 games. The Cavaliers showed they could compete -- and they could have even won the game -- but they needed to play their A-game throughout to have a shot at beating Notre Dame on the road, and instead, they only played that well for one half. Here are a few more points about Virginia's first loss of the season:
The players weren't starstruck and played to win. On its first drive, UVa went right down the field with a series of quick passes -- highlighted by a Hasise Dubois 18-yard catch and a 43-yard catch-and-run by Joe Reed -- and scored when Bryce Perkins worked his magic, scrambled left, and found Reed in the end zone to take a quick, 7-0 lead. Notre Dame battled back for a 14-7 lead, but UVa was undaunted, kicking a field goal and then scoring a last-minute TD to take a 17-14 lead into the locker room. Perkins' pass was pretty good, but Dubois' catch with a defender draped on him was even better. And then to begin the second half, UVa surprised the Irish with an onside kick, recovering it and getting a chance to extend its lead. Virginia made several mistakes, especially in the second half of the game, but a lack of effort, focus, and determination was not one of them.
This is miami 2017 all over again. Experiencing this as a player, and now as a fan is even more upsetting. No adjustments man 😔— Kurt Benkert (@KurtBenkert) September 28, 2019
Three plays changed the game. There were plenty of other plays you could point to, but these are the three plays that still stick out to me a few days later. On Notre Dame's first drive, Virginia was up 7-0 and actually stopped the Irish on third-and-10 in their own territory, but linebacker Matt Gahm was called for being offside. Notre Dame got another chance and converted. I was texting with a friend, and we both agreed it looked like he was offside. In the booth, though, officiating commentator Terry McAulay said Gahm was "technically" offside but that standard protocol probably would've called for a warning first. Of course, Virginia did not help itself on the rest of the drive, and Notre Dame went down and tied the game. That was a huge call, because UVa was set to get the ball right back up 7-0. The other two huge plays are obvious: the Perkins fumbles that led to scores. Notre Dame returned the first one to UVa's seven, and the other all the way for a touchdown.
Without those scores spurred by the defense, Notre Dame all of a sudden only has 21 points. Virginia's defense played pretty well, especially against the pass. Getting gashed by a spotty Notre Dame running attack was surprising -- Tony Jones Jr. finished with 131 yards after combining for 38 the prior two games -- but the 'Hoos actually ended up outgaining the Irish 338-322. Granted, the way Notre Dame played the rest of the game changed thanks to those turnovers, so had it been pushing the envelope more, perhaps it would've gained more yards, but still, that's another encouraging sign that Virginia was right in this game and more competitive than the final score indicates.
So about that protection. Wow. Eight sacks. The offensive line just has to be better, period. And Perkins needs to get the ball out a bit more quickly and be more secure with the ball. He needs to have better awareness in those situations. Did Notre Dame do anything differently with its defense to begin to give UVa more issues? It was reported during the game that the Irish simplified things and just started playing more of a base defense. In the postgame news conference, though, Bronco Mendenhall said he didn't see any difference. But whatever the case, the offense really was shut down after halftime. If Virginia stopped doing what was working, that's not good. And if Virginia failed to adjust to Notre Dame's defensive changes, also not good. Either way, a subpar performance from the offense, which is disappointing. More and more often the past couple of seasons, it seems to be the offense coming up short while the defense plays well enough to win when Virginia loses.
The good news is this wasn't the biggest game of the season. Was it the biggest opportunity? Sure, you could argue that. A top-10 road victory could've vaulted this season into unbelievable territory, but UVa was a double-digit underdog. A loss was expected. A win was not required to make this a successful season. The ACC games coming up are much bigger, and UVa's goals are conference- and rivalry-related: Win the division and beat Virginia Tech. Those goals are perfectly intact after a game at Notre Dame when Virginia came in with nothing to lose.
This bye week comes at the perfect time. UVa was able to throw itself fully at this Notre Dame game knowing a break was coming after it. The Cavaliers can lick their wounds -- I imagine Perkins is bruised and battered -- and then really gear up for the meat of the ACC schedule, starting with a Friday night matchup at Miami on Oct. 11. This next stretch is huge with four games -- three on the road -- against solid-looking conference teams. Miami has a very good defense, Duke just crushed Virginia Tech by 35 on the road, Louisville is competing better than last season, and UNC almost toppled No. 1 Clemson this past weekend. Virginia can enter this key part of the season knowing it can play with almost anyone in the country, but it has to clean up some issues to meet its goals.