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The Plays that Saved Virginia’s Comeback at Louisville

The Hoos had to make several critical plays to mount the 17-point fourth-quarter comeback
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With Virginia trailing Louisville by 17 points in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers essentially needed to be perfect for the remainder of the game in order to mount the comeback. There were several plays that happened well before the end of the game on Saturday that were absolutely essential to UVA’s come-from-behind win. If any one of those plays were not made, it likely would have spelled defeat for the Hoos.

Those plays and the players who made them deserve as much credit as the game-winning touchdown or Louisville’s missed field goal that sealed it. So, let’s give out some roses.

Virginia holds Louisville to a field goal after Brennan Armstrong’s second interception.

Late in the third quarter, Brennan Armstrong’s pass was tipped high into the air and intercepted by Kenderick Duncan, setting up the Cardinals at the UVA 27-yard line. Louisville was already leading by 14 points at that point and the Cards had all the momentum in the game. The Virginia offense had gone cold, managing just 34 total yards in the third quarter, and Virginia’s defense had no answers for Louisville’s run game, which totaled 116 rushing yards in the third quarter alone. A short touchdown drive to go up 34-13 would have likely been the nail in the coffin. Instead, the UVA defense came up with a huge stop, tackling the dangerous Hassan Hall after short gains on first and second down, and then bringing Malik Cunningham to the ground after just a one-yard gain on third and four. Louisville kicker James Turner nailed the field goal to make it a three-possession game, but a 17-point deficit is far more manageable than 21 points. Even more importantly, the stop sent the message that the Wahoos were not ready to give up yet.

Third down conversions on the next drive to set up Thompson’s five-yard rushing score

On the ensuing Virginia possession, the Cavaliers desperately needed to score a touchdown. Just getting points on the board was not going to be enough, as UVA had not gotten into the end zone since its first drive of the game. The Hoos eventually delivered that touchdown after a 10-play, 75-yard drive that lasted 3:49. But, Virginia had to convert on three separate third-down plays in order to keep the drive alive. As we saw many times in the fourth quarter, Armstrong targeted Keytaon Thompson on a crucial third-and-four from Virginia’s own 31-yard line. Thompson came down with the jump ball on the sideline for a 20-yard gain out to midfield. It was the first sign of life from UVA’s offense since the first half. Three plays later, UVA faced a third-and-ten and Armstrong found the ultra-reliable Billy Kemp for a 15-yard gain to the Louisville 34-yard line. Finally, Armstrong passed to Ra’Shaun Henry for a 22-yard pickup on third-and-three to set up a five-yard rushing touchdown from Keytaon Thompson on the next play, making the score 30-20.

Jelani Woods scores on third down and goal to bring the Hoos to within three

After the Virginia defense came up with another crucial three-and-out stop on Louisville’s next possession, Virginia put together another long drive and threatened to make things very interesting. Armstrong passed to Keytaon Thompson, who shed multiple tacklers and ran 34 yards deep into Louisville territory. A few plays later, the Hoos were in a good spot with first and goal from the Cardinals’ seven-yard line. But, after two rushing plays and a false start, the Cavaliers found themselves facing a third down from the three-yard line. If Virginia did not convert this third down, it is possible that Bronco Mendenhall would have considered taking the points with a short Brendan Farrell field goal on fourth down to make it a one-possession, 30-23 game with 7:51 left on the clock. But, as we saw later in the game, Virginia absolutely needed seven points on this drive. On third down, Armstrong went to tight end Jelani Woods, who was back in the lineup after missing last week with an injury. Woods ran a slant route against single-coverage and came up with the touchdown reception to bring the Hoos to within three points.

Darrius Bratton makes chase-down tackle on Hassan Hall to prevent a touchdown and save the game

Virginia and Louisville each went three-and-out on their next drives and Louisville got the ball back still up 30-27 with 3:58 to go. Hassan Hall, who had busted loose for a 52-yard touchdown in the third quarter, did so again as he found a hole in the middle of the UVA defense and seemed well on his way to scoring an 80-yard touchdown to put the game on ice. Instead, Darrius Bratton came out of nowhere from the left side of the field and made a diving chase-down tackle of Hall to save the touchdown. It was only Bratton’s second tackle of the game, but it was perhaps the most important play of the game. “He didn’t have a significant role tonight in terms of number of plays, but there couldn’t have been a bigger play made,” said Bronco Mendenhall of Bratton’s tackle. “That play to me, I’m not going to forget as a coach. In fact, I only remember a couple plays from that whole game and that was the one I remember most.” The tackle prevented Louisville from going up by two scores with a little over three minutes remaining in the game. The UVA defense held on to force a James Turner field goal to make it 33-27 with 2:22 left in the game, giving Brennan Armstrong and the Virginia offense a chance to take the lead.

Two separate fourth-down conversions keep the game-winning drive alive

Virginia had just 2:22 to go 75 yards to win the game, but time was not as much of a factor as Louisville’s defense, which nearly won the game by forcing a turnover on downs at UVA’s own 29-yard line. On fourth down with six yards to go, Armstrong completed a pass to Billy Kemp for a 17-yard pickup to keep UVA’s hopes alive. After Armstrong completed another 17-yard pass to Keytaon Thompson, the Hoos faced fourth down again from the Louisville 35-yard line. On fourth and eight, Armstrong went right back to Thompson, who caught the ball over the middle of the field for a 16 yard gain to the Louisville 19-yard line.

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Grant Misch hauls in the game-winning touchdown.

Virginia had several weapons to go to for the deciding score from the one-yard line. Ra’Shaun Henry, Billy Kemp, and Keytaon Thompson each had nine receptions in the game and Thompson and Wayne Taulapapa were both reliable options in short-yardage rushing situations. Instead, the Hoos ran a play for junior tight end Grant Misch, who snuck into the back left corner of the end zone and was wide open. Grant Misch has been a solid tight end throughout his entire UVA career, but he has always been the secondary tight end option behind the likes of Tanner Cowley, Tony Poljan, and now, Jelani Woods. Armstrong was under tremendous pressure as he waited for Misch to get open and was very nearly sacked, but he was able to flip the ball to Misch, who hauled it in to tie the game at 33-33. It was Misch’s second-career touchdown and first since November 2nd, 2019, when he scored a similarly-unexpected touchdown that ended up being the game-winner in Virginia’s 38-31 victory at North Carolina.

Brendan Farrell converts the pivotal extra point

The Misch touchdown tied the game at 33 and UVA just needed to convert the extra point to regain the lead for the first time since early in the third quarter. Extra points are no guarantee, especially in college football. Virginia is also quite familiar with how uncertain short field goals in critical situations can be, given what happened in Miami last week. To make things even more interesting, sophomore Brendan Farrell was making his second career start at kicker in the place of injured starter Justin Duenkel. With the game on the line and kicking a late extra point on the road, Farrell calmly sent the ball through the uprights to deliver the extra point which *actually* gave Virginia the lead.

For the second-straight week, Virginia made just enough plays to win the game and the Hoos escaped with their first ever victory in Louisville. We’ll take it. 

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