Virginia was mere seconds away from pulling off the upset of No. 9 Notre Dame, when Fighting Irish backup quarterback DeShone Kizer heaved a pass to an opened Will Fuller for a 39-yard go-ahead touchdown with 12 seconds remaining on the clock. A Notre Dame two-point conversion and two desperation plays by Virginia later left them with losers 34-27. Heartbreak and anguish overcame Wahoo fans as it was evident their upset bid was ended.
Every Virginia fan right now … pic.twitter.com/LAzCTmAA2m
— ESPN (@espn) September 12, 2015
Close but no cigar: Virginia twice rallied from a deficit of 12 points to take the lead over Notre Dame. The latest came in the fourth quarter, as the Cavaliers took advantage of the Fighting Irish losing their starting quarterback Malik Zaire to a fractured ankle. Quarterback Matt Johns capped a six-play, 75-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run to cut the gap to 26-21. Then running back Albert Reid capped an 80-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown to give Virginia a 27-26 lead with 1:54 remaining in the game — the Cavaliers failed to convert the two-point conversion.
With the backup Kizer behind the helm, Notre Dame’s chances looked grim, but the redshirt freshman quarterback completed 5 of 7 passes to march the Irish on an eight-play drive for 80 yards and the go-ahead score.
Matt Johns played good enough to win: Johns rebounded from a mediocre performance last week against UCLA by outplaying Zaire in the battle of quarterbacks. He completed 26 of 38 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly he was essentially mistake free. His only true hiccup came in the fourth quarter when he did not see a corner blitz and was sacked by a free KeiVarae Russell, fumbling away the ball to Notre Dame in the process.
But the defense held up, and he quickly rebounded guiding Virginia to a touchdown on the next drive. On the drive that eventually gave the Cavaliers the lead late in the fourth, he looked composed and comfortable. He made two huge plays standing tall in the pocket on a 4th-and-3 play where he found Canaan Severin, who finished with career-highs with 11 receptions and 153 receiving yards, for four yards and the first. Then later in the drive he connected with tight end Ryan Santoro for a 34-yard gain that setup Reid’s score.
There is a lot to gain from his performance on Saturday as the Cavaliers move forward to a meeting against William & Mary next week. He will have another opportunity to build confidence in himself and with the offense before the face their third nationally-ranked opponent in Boise State in two weeks.
Too much Will Fuller: With Notre Dame offense struggling most of the game, and then losing Zaire, it was Fuller who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for them. He made two tremendous plays that ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.
The first was just as pivotal as his last, as he hauled in a huge pass from Zaire for a 59-yard touchdown, beating Demetrious Nicholson to give Notre Dame a 19-14 lead midway through the third quarter. He blew the top off the Virginia defense right when they needed it most. The Irish offense was sputtering and trying to put a finger on how to turn their misfortunes around. The momentum of the play helped Notre Dame make a stop on defense and then score again to take a 26-14 lead.
He then put on the burners again for what proved to be the game-winner, beating cornerback Maurice Canady. As the talk will focus on Kizer for stepping up big, it was Fuller who presented himself as a big-time player to aide his inexperience quarterback when his team needed it most. His elite speed was just too much to contain for the full 60 minutes.
What this means: It’s said there are no moral victories, but considering where Virginia is at, to be able to fend off a top-10 team for 59 minutes was a win in itself. This team appears to be better than its record and as long as Mike London and his staff keeps them focused the Cavaliers could win quite a few games once it gets out of its brutal first quarter of the schedule.