In the face of adversity, No. 9 Notre Dame managed to earn its ninth win of the season on the road over Virginia on Saturday night in Charlottesville.

Throughout the week, a flu bug spread within the program. As many as 13 players were missing from practice at times, while the team tried to prepare for one of the best offenses in the country.

However, that explosive offense was a shell of itself against the Fighting Irish. Without starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who didn’t dress due to a rib injury, the Cavaliers had no rhythm and true freshman quarterback Jay Woolfolk had no chance under center despite multiple talented playmakers at his disposal.

Even without safety Kyle Hamilton (knee), linebacker Drew White (illness) and defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (illness), the Irish defense held Virginia to just 278 yards of total offense and three points.

Offensively, 21 first-half points off of touchdowns from tight end Michael Mayer, running back Kyren Williams and wide receiver Braden Lenzy gave the Irish plenty of breathing room against the Cavaliers during the final 30 minutes of play.

While Notre Dame did leave points on the board after deep drives into Virginia territory throughout the contest, the 28 points it did score was more than enough to earn its 19th regular season win in their last 20 games.

“We had a lot of things that we had to overcome,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Injuries, illness, and playing on the road at night isn’t easy. But our guys have been terrific. They had a mindset that this was the challenge that they wanted. They thought right about it. They didn’t think about it in the sense of ‘wow, why all this?’ They played together and did some really good things (Saturday), and to have some individuals step up and play some of their best football was even more impressive.”

DEPLETED DEFENSE DOMINATES

For the second week in a row, Notre Dame’s defense put an exceptional performance on display against a very talented offense even with the absence of Armstrong.

The Irish held a team that had scored 48 points or more in its last three contests to a measly field goal in the second half.

The unit truly established its dominance in the first half, pitching a shutout and holding Virginia to only 92 total yards of offense. During the second half, the Cavaliers marched into Notre Dame territory on four separate occasions, but only ended up with the lone field goal.

That success came due to key players stepping up into more significant roles. Linebacker Bo Bauer took command of the middle of the defense with the absence of White and played very well, leading the team with nine tackles and had one-and-a-half sacks.

Along the defensive line, sophomore Rylie Mills was given a more prominent role with Tagovailoa-Amosa out. He delivered with two of the team’s seven sacks in the game.

“He got the game ball,” said Kelly of Mills. “We had the smart idea of moving him to defensive end, and he got the sacks. With Myron being out, that really shorthanded us, so we kicked (Mills) out to the end position, and he responds with two sacks. I think he’s probably earned his right to stay there.”

Some fresh faces in the secondary made a considerable amount of plays as well. Sophomore Xavier Watts had a career-high five tackles and fellow sophomore Ramon Henderson made his presence felt with an athletic play that yielded an interception during the second half.

“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have got it if DJ (Brown) didn’t tell me to do something,” Henderson said. “He told me to show two high and then he bumped down. (Woolfolk) just showed eyes at (Virginia wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks) so I just ran over there and tried to catch the ball.”

It was a positive sign of depth moving forward for a defense that has now given up just nine points and 462 yards combined over the last two games.

OFFENSE PLAYS EFFICIENTLY

With how well Notre Dame moved the ball on Saturday night, the Irish could’ve easily surpassed 40 points against Virginia’s below-average defense.

A turnover on downs in the first half and a lost fumble inside the Virginia 10-yard line in the second half squandered scoring opportunities, but the Irish still did more than enough to win convincingly.

Lenzy, Mayer and wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. each had a receiving touchdown from quarterback Jack Coan (15-of-20, three touchdowns and one interception), and both Williams (70 rushing yards and a touchdown) and freshman running back Logan Diggs (64 rushing yards) had quality performances in the run game.

Without wide receiver Avery Davis – a significant leader on offense who tore his ACL earlier in the week – the Irish made up for his lost production behind Lenzy’s performance, who only had one touchdown coming into Saturday’s game.

“I think just going into the week, when you lose a leader, someone that puts up a lot of good numbers and has been a great player for us, It was definitely harped on to be more focused in what we do,” Lenzy said. “In my mind, we were prepared to do everything we could each snap because we don’t know what can happen.

“The goal is to get better every week. I think early in the year, there came so many games where we were winning, and we just didn’t feel good about the wins. Winning is not easy. You see so many of these good teams losing, so I think we really have just been very methodical and focusing on that week, and what we can do to get better that week. I think that you see the results recently, especially after the bye week and Virginia Tech. We just continue to develop.”

Evan Lepak can be reached at evan.lepak@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240326. Follow him on Twitter @EvanMPLepak.

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