UVA pass rush will be a key in Orange Bowl

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia linebacker Zane Zandier takes questions on Friday in preparation for Monday’s matchup with No. 9 Florida (Photo courtesy Orange Bowl).

One of the keys to winning the Orange Bowl will likely be which quarterback can best handle the pressure stemming from an aggressive pass rush.

Florida ranks No. 4 nationally in sacking the quarterback with 46 in 12 games. Virginia ranks No. 7 with 45 QB sacks in 13 games. Both the Gators’ Kyle Trask and the Cavaliers’ Bryce Perkins are going to be under heavy pressure in Monday night’s game.

Perkins can be his most dangerous when things break down and he is required to go “off script” and make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. He’s mobile, runs like a running back, and can take it to the house.

Trask, on the other hand, is a bigger player at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. He is not that mobile, is a traditional dropback pocket passer, which makes him a little easier target for an aggressive pass rush. However, the fact that he patiently stands in the pocket, Trask can often deliver the ball to any number of talented Florida receivers.

Protecting the quarterback has been a major focus for both Orange Bowl teams in their December practices.

Gators offensive lineman Nick Buchanan has watched a lot of film on Virginia and has been impressed.

“Big, fast, physical, aggressive,” Buchanan said of the opposing Cavalier defense. “They’re going to come and hit you in the mouth. They play extremely hard, so we’ve got to come out there ready because they’re going to come out here ready.”

Buchanan said that Virginia blitzes about 90 percent of the time, so there has been a lot of Florida practice time dedicated to blitz pickup drills.

Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell said Friday that Trask fits well into Florida coach Dan Mullens’ offensive scheme.

“He’s a big-bodied kid,” Howell said. “He’s not going down easy. He’s got a really strong arm.”

Some liken Trask to a Ben Roethlisberger-type body — big, strong, tough to bring down, but again, not that mobile.

Howell said Virginia hasn’t really faced a quarterback quite like Trask this season, more of a pure dropback passer. Most of what the Cavaliers have faced have been more of the RPO- (run/pass option) type QBs, usually more mobile.

“These guys are more sophisticated in their pass game, but a lot depends on the quarterback,” Howell said. “They’re doing things that are really good for [Trask] and the quarterback that they had previously [opening-day starter Feleipe Franks], which are pretty similar.”

Florida, which has a large pool of athletic, talented receivers, features different route concepts than most of UVA’s opponents this season, which has caused more homework for the Cavaliers’ defensive unit.

“For the last week, week and a half, we’ve been studying down-and-distance, route concepts, what receiver is good on what routes, what are they best doing,” said Virginia safety Joey Blount. “You’ve got the tunnel screens and middle reads under different routes they like to run, outside and inside receivers do a great job of getting the ball.

“Trask does a great job of getting the ball around to all the receivers, so that’s actually what we’re pinpointing, how we can read their concepts and just down-and-distance, and just rely on the play calling for the defense.”

Part of Virginia’s defensive philosophy is the blitz, a huge point of emphasis since training camp. UVA’s 45 QB sacks this season are a program record, which brings a smile to Bronco Mendenhall, a big believer in analytics.

Mendenhall knows that when his team has at least one more sack than opponents, his team wins more than 92 percent of the time. Those numbers come from more than 15 seasons as a head coach, so it’s no mistake the Cavaliers have been super aggressive this season.

“We take a lot of pride in getting to the quarterback and making as many plays as we can on late downs, getting off the field to give our offense the ball back,” said UVA linebacker Zane Zandier, the team’s leading tackler (95) with five sacks, two QB hurries, five pass break ups and one interception to go along with 11.5 tackles for loss. “I think we’ve done that at a high level this year, and it’s something that we continue to work on.”

Zandier said UVA switches up its blitzes in order to confuse the opposing offensive line. There are so many different looks that it keeps the offense off balance because there’s no way to accurately, consistently guess which players are blitzing.

The Cavaliers watched a lot of film from No. 1-ranked LSU’s win over the Gators this season to see how the Tigers applied pressure, what worked, what didn’t.

“We watched LSU and how they were able to get after the quarterback, and I think they did that at a high level,” Zandier said. “Just a mix of all the different games that [Florida] played this year, just watching different tape, just understanding what’s going to work best against them. We’ve had a lot of time to prepare, so we’re feeling confident about the scheme that we have in place, and we’re excited to get after it.”

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