SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No. 10 Notre Dame turned three strip sacks into 21 points on Saturday while No. 18 Virginia turned the ball over five times and squandered a handful of opportunities to steal the game in the second half of a 35-20 loss.
“Ultimately, our inability to consistently protect our quarterback was the difference in the game,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara led the defense with three sacks and forced two of the fumbles that the Fighting Irish turned into points. The latter came late in the third quarter, when he came off the left side and dislodged the ball with a blindside hit on Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins. Adetokunbo Ogundeji recovered the fumble and rumbled 23 yards for a 28-17 lead.
Okwara’s first strip sack set up C’Bo Flemister’s 11-yard touchdown run and gave the Irish a 14-7 lead in the first quarter. Notre Dame sacked Perkins five times in the third quarter alone and finished with eight in the game.
Mendenhall said Notre Dame (3-1) didn’t employ many exotic blitz packages. The Irish simply rushed four and got to Perkins more often than not.
“It was simply an edge rusher beating our tackles,” Mendenhall said. “[Notre Dame’s defenders] played hard and rushed effectively and creating turnovers changes the game.”
Notre Dame’s first points of the second half were set up when Jamir Jones got into the backfield and knocked the ball out of Perkins’ hand as he cocked it to throw. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa snagged it out of the air and made it to Virginia’s six-yard line before Perkins brought him down from behind. Two plays later, Tony Jones Jr. found the end zone from two yards out for a 21-17 lead.
In the first half, Virginia’s passing game looked as good, if not better, than it has all season. Perkins went into the locker room having completed 18-of-22 passes for 235 yards and both Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed caught touchdowns.
Dubois finished the game with a career-high 143 receiving yards on nine catches, and for the second time this season, Reed set career highs with nine catches for 107 yards.
“We like our receivers and they played, as a unit, to a level we expected,” Mendenhall said. “The stage was not too big for them. They made critical catches, they made contested catches and they did a nice job.”
Dubois won a jump ball in the end zone late in the second quarter to send Virginia into halftime with a 17-14 advantage. It was just the second time this season that the Cavaliers have led at halftime.
The second half was a different story, though.
Virginia opened it by recovering an onside kick, but that drive ended with a punt on the Irish’s 49. A couple of series later, Notre Dame’s Collin Finke fumbled a punt, giving the Wahoos the ball 29 yards from the end zone. After an incompletion on fourth-and-1, the offense went to the sideline without points once again.
“Especially since the defense did such a great job getting stops and giving us great field position, the offense not being able to help them out sucks for us,” Perkins said. “We know they executed on their part but we didn’t on ours.”
Perkins finished the game 30-of-43 for 334 yards, but pressure in his face led to an interception on Virginia’s first drive of the fourth quarter. He was picked again later in the fourth when Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton jumped in front of a pass to Reed.
“When you turn the ball over five times, you don’t win very often,” Mendenhall said.
Perkins didn’t get any help from the running game, which produced negative-two rushing yards in the first half and finished the game with just four.
Jones Jr. found the end zone on the ground three times, including a 30-yard scamper, which gave the Irish a 35-17 lead with 10:28 to play. He finished with a career-high 133 yards and became the first running back to rack up 100 against the Cavaliers since last season’s loss to Georgia Tech.
Virginia is off next weekend before hitting the road again to face Miami.