Offense was hard to come by for both UVA and #21 Louisville on Saturday. Neither team got past the 300-yard mark in total offense, and after the Cardinals marched down the field for a touchdown on their first drive, it was a slog the rest of the way.
Advantage: Virginia, which as the underdog knew going in that if it was going to win, it was going to have to win ugly, and has just the kind of unit in its beast of a defense to win ugly.
“We play with a lot of confidence. You have to when you have a ranked opponent coming in to our stadium,” said senior linebacker Henry Colley, who had seven tackles, a sack and a pass breakup for his day’s work.
But neither Colley nor anyone else wearing the navy blue seemed to get even a fingertip on anyone on the UL offense on its first drive, when Louisville starting quarterback Will Gardner looked like the second coming of Joe Montana, completing all four of his passes on the drive for 49 yards and a touchdown.
And then, in an instant, Joe Montana was Hannah Montana: after the hot start, Gardner was 10-for-30 passing for 115 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, and he was benched for a four-drive stretch spanning the end of the first half into the fourth quarter in favor of backup Reggie Bonnafon, who was only able to muster four yards of total offense on three drives in the third.
What happened out there to change things from what happened on the first drive to what went on thereafter?
“It’s no secret that our secondary is full of guys that have played in a lot of college football games. I believe that the amount of pressure that Eli [Harold] and Max [Valles] puts on people affects the way the quarterback throws the ball. When you apply pressure like that and you have guys that can cover, you have a chance to be a really good defense,” UVA coach Mike London said.
Virginia only recorded three sacks, after coming in averaging four and a half per game, but it seemed like various members of the front seven were in the faces of Gardner and Bonnafon all afternoon, literally. UVA was credited with 11 pass breakups, many of them at or just beyond the line of scrimmage.
“They were doing a good job when they couldn’t get there on the rush getting their hands up in the air,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “We’ve got to find the passing lane and we’ve got to finish our blocks with our offensive linemen so that when they leave their feet we drive it and don’t allow them to keep their hands up. So there are a number of things responsible for it, but there were certainly way too many batted balls, and one of them resulted in an interception.”
That was the pick by Anthony Harris that set up the Virginia offense in the red zone, and the Cavs converted that field position into a 15-yard touchdown pass from Greyson Lambert to Miles Gooch that tied the game at 7-7 late in the first quarter.
A second-quarter interception by Maurice Canady forced the switch from Gardner to the more mobile Bonnafon, whose only success, modest though it was, came in the two-minute drill against a Virginia prevent defense at the end of the first half.
Petrino went back to Gardner in the fourth quarter, and he rallied the Cardinals with two touchdown drives that gave Louisville a 21-20 lead after Gardner hit James Quick in the back of the end zone on a crossing pattern with 6:59 to go. A fumble by Quick on a punt return after a Virginia three-and-out set up a 42-yard Ian Frye field goal that gave Virginia a 23-21 lead with 3:42 to go, leaving Gardner with the hot hand plenty of time to move Louisville into position for a potential game-winning field goal.
After misfiring on a first-down pass in the flat, UVA defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta dialed up a blitz, and linebacker Eli Harold came around the left side of the formation into the backfield untouched, sacking Gardner for a 10-yard loss to the Louisville 3.
An incomplete pass on third down would be Louisville’s last offensive play of the game, as the Virginia offense was able to get two first downs to run out the clock.
There was no magic to what Tenuta and his unit did to calm things down after that first successful Louisville drive, according to Coley.
“He didn’t make any adjustments. We just calmed down our emotions as a unit,” Coley said. “They watch film the same way we do, so they knew some of our tendencies, just like we knew about theirs. We just played our game.”
– Column by Chris Graham