SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Virginia’s offensive line couldn’t block Notre Dame’s four-man front. Bryce Perkins couldn’t hold on to the football. And that meant 18th-ranked UVa couldn’t find a way to upset the No. 10 Fighting Irish on Saturday.
Perkins, Virginia’s senior quarterback, fumbled three times, leading to three Notre Dame touchdowns, as the Fighting Irish beat the Cavaliers, 35-20.
Notre Dame overcame a surprising halftime deficit and handed UVa (4-1) its first loss of the season.
Virginia committed five turnovers on the day.
“That game was on us,” junior safety Joey Blount said. “I feel like we gave that game to them.”
The UVa offensive line certainly gave Notre Dame plenty of free rushes at Perkins. Notre Dame (3-1) sacked him eight times in all, including five in the third quarter, when it forced two of his fumbles.
“It was just on us,” sophomore center Olusegun Oluwatimi said. “We were losing our one-on-one matchups. We weren’t giving Bryce time. The pocket was getting pushed. We just have to be better and we have to be firmer.”
That third period proved to be a frustrating ensemble of missed opportunities for the upset-minded Cavaliers. They opened the half by recovering a surprise onside kick, catching Notre Dame off guard and giving UVa cornerback Bryce Hall the chance to field the kickoff cleanly.
Virginia failed to score any points on its ensuing possession, or later in the quarter when it followed Blount’s recovery of a Notre Dame muffed punt return with a four and out.
The Fighting Irish, meanwhile, spent those 15 minutes abusing UVa’s offensive line and battering its star quarterback.
On third-and-10 at the Notre Dame 38, defensive end Jamir Jones hit Perkins as he prepared to throw and the ball popped out of Perkins’ hand and to the Irish’s Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Tagovailoa-Amosa ran it back to the Virginia 7-yard line before Perkins chased him down, jumped on his back and dragged him to the turf.
Two plays later, Tony Jones Jr. fought his way into the end zone for this second touchdown of the day, giving Notre Dame the 21-17 lead with 9:50 to play.
Then, on first-and-10 at the UVa 32-yard line, Notre Dame end Julian Okwara raced around right tackle Ryan Nelson and drilled Perkins, who fumbled again. Adetokunbo Ogundeji picked up the fumble and ran it back 23 yards for a score, putting the Irish up 28-17.
Perkins insisted the blame should be spread around for the strip-sacks.
“I wasn’t aware of the guys coming off the edges. Maybe I need to deepen my drop up or feel the pressure more or just do things to eliminate those clean sacks,” Perkins said. “We all have to do everything. I threw two picks and the pocket was clean enough. We all got to work on things we need to work on.”
Those five second-half turnovers erased a memorable and promising first half for the visiting team.
The ACC was 0-20 all-time at Notre Dame Stadium when the Irish were ranked, and when the two parties agreed on their scheduling pact in 2014, the Cavaliers seemed like the least likely of candidates to change that.
Virginia entered the weekend 0-27 on the road against top 10 teams.
But coach Bronco Mendenhall’s squad certainly didn’t shrink from the moment, storming out to an early lead and moving the ball through the air.
Perkins completed 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, helping the Cavaliers build a 17-14 halftime margin.
“Perkins played flawlessly in the first half,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “The ball came out accurately, on time. We wanted to make sure the pocket collapsed on him. We stuck with our game plan. It broke through for us in a manner that we saw a lot of those sacks come together in the second half.”
In the second half, the line couldn’t protect Perkins, he couldn’t hold on to the football and Virginia couldn’t hang on to the lead.
Perkins finished 30 for 43 for 334 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Senior wide receiver Joe Reed had eight catches for 86 yards and a touchdown, all in the first half, and senior Hasise Dubois finished with nine catches for 143 yards and a score.
But the struggles of Virginia’s offensive line rendered the Cavaliers’ run game punchless and left Perkins playing the role of tackling dummy.
UVa mustered just 59 rushing yards, not counting the 55 yards Perkins lost on sacks.
“We had to get a great pressure and we had to contain him with our front four,” Kelly said. “First half, he was great. In the second half, we were able to get to him quickly and he had to get the ball out of his hand quickly, and that was the difference.”
Notre Dame had no such trouble, getting a career-high 131 yards and three touchdowns, including a 30-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter that put the game out of reach, from Jones Jr.
The loss left it clear that Mendenhall’s impressively rapid rebuilding of the Virginia program isn’t complete and the gap between it and a top-10 program remains substantial.
Still, the Cavaliers remain undefeated in ACC play and in the driver’s seat for the Coastal Division.
“It’s frustrating. It stings. It hurts,” Hall said. “But one thing I know is, this doesn’t define us. We’re moving forward. This loss isn’t going to set us back.”