SOUTH BEND — The Notre Dame defensive line made sure its presence was felt Saturday afternoon, recording eight sacks in a 35-20 victory for the No. 10 Fighting Irish over No. 18 Virginia.
Of those eight sacks, five of them came in the second half. The most important of those five came with just under 10 minutes to go in the third quarter and Notre Dame trailing 17-14.
Virginia senior quarterback Bryce Perkins dropped back to pass but was immediately met in the backfield by Irish senior defensive end Jamir Jones. Not only did Jones sack Perkins, but he forced a fumble, with the football falling into the hands of fellow Notre Dame defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.
The redshirt sophomore scampered 48 yards to the Virginia 7-yard line. Two players later, redshirt junior running back Tony Jones scored from 2 yards out, giving the Irish a lead for good.
Although he was bummed he didn’t score, Tagovailoa-Amosa knew how important that takeaway was. He also knew he was short of breath following the near-50-yard run for the 285-pound lineman.
“After that big run, I couldn’t breathe. So I was trying to gather my air, take a breath,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “And what makes it worse is everybody slapping your head. You’re trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to take a breath.”
Another sack and forced fumble directly led to points for Notre Dame later in the quarter. Senior Julian Okwara hit Perkins — Okwara’s third sack and second forced fumble of the game — allowing redshirt junior Ade Ogundeji to pick up the ball and run 23 yards for the score, making it 28-17 Fighting Irish with 1:41 to go in the third.
It was a breakout game for Okwara after struggling to record sacks in the first three games.
“I love what Julian did. He got back to playing really physical football,” Kelly said. “He got back to playing physical football and within the realm of the defense, and it really showed itself today. He’s going to take off from here.”
Kelly said the Irish sticking to their game plan allowed for the eight sacks to occur.
“We wanted to make sure the pocket collapsed on (Perkins) and made it difficult for him to get outside and improvise,” Kelly said. “And we stuck with our game plan. … It broke through for us in a manner where we saw a lot of those sacks come together in the second half.”
Notre Dame put the game on ice in the fourth quarter, in large part to the running of Jones. After entering the fourth quarter with 34 yards rushing, the redshirt junior had 97 yards on the ground in the fourth quarter alone. His third and final touchdown went for 30 yards and officially put the game out of reach for the Cavaliers.
“Coach (Kelly) wanted us to keep running the ball just to slow down the game, really,” Jones said. “And then I bust out (the touchdown run), and I was like, ‘Well, man, this is the cherry on top.’”
Being trusted to close out the game on the ground was important for Jones.
“All good teams have to lean on their run game once in a while, and it showed today,” Jones said.
A dominant second half from the Irish followed an up-and-down first half. Virginia had the ball first and drove down the field with ease, capping off a seven-play, 69-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Perkins to wide receiver Joe Reed, putting the Cavaliers up 7-0.
The Irish responded with a lengthy drive of their own, going 13 plays for 75 yards in 6:23 to tie the game at seven. Jones’ first touchdown run, this one from 5 yards out, ended the long drive.
Okwara then had his first sack and forced fumble of the season, which he also recovered to set up the Notre Dame offense at its own 46-yard line. Redshirt freshman running back C’Bo Flemister took over the drive, making a 13-yard reception before an 11-yard touchdown run, giving Notre Dame a 14-7 advantage late in the first quarter.
“He is a dog, man,” Jones said of Flemister. “He grinds. He’s always in the film room. He’s always out there late at practice, doing something. And it showed today.”
Virginia wouldn’t go away, though. The Cavaliers’ Brian Delaney kicked a field goal to make it 14-10 midway through the second quarter, and then ended the first half with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Perkins to Hasise Dubois. This gave Virginia a 17-14 lead at halftime.
Notre Dame countered with 21 unanswered points in the second half. Virginia could only muster a fourth-quarter field goal from Delaney.
After a tough road loss to No. 3 Georgia, Kelly was proud in the way his team played against the Cavaliers.
“Great game. Proud of my football team, my staff,” Kelly said. “It was not an easy week. I challenged our football team, right after the Georgia game, that this would be a defining game. … We challenged them. They accepted the challenge. The staff accepted the challenge, and they responded.”