Virginia loses to Gators, but proves it could play on the big stage

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: Capital One Orange Bowl

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Virginia came to the Orange Bowl with something to prove. The Cavaliers didn’t feel that their 62-17 loss to No. 3 Clemson in the ACC Championship was representative of what kind of football program they had built.

No. 6 Florida would be another challenge.

Forty seconds into Monday night’s game, UVA must have wondered if it was in for another lopsided loss to a top-10 opponent. Florida, on the strength of a 61-yard run by the game’s MVP, Lamical Perine, stunned the Cavaliers and quickly led 7-0.

Just like in its ACC Championship game, Virginia answered. Unlike the Clemson game, the Cavaliers kept answering, throwing a scare into the two-touchdown-favorite Gators before Florida prevailed, 36-28.

The fact that UVA took Florida deep into the fourth quarter had to be satisfying to Bronco Mendenhall and his staff as they look to continue to play on a bigger stage in the future of the program. To hang with a team that only lost to LSU and Georgia, an opponent that led LSU in the third quarter, had to be comforting.

Behind senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who ended up with a four-touchdown pass performance and broke Virginia’s all-time total offense record (in just two years) along the way (7,910 yards), the Cavaliers gave the Gators all they could handle. Florida took advantage of a hobbled UVA defense, one that more resembled a M*A*S*H unit, for 549 yards.

Perhaps the difference was the riverboat-gambler intentions of Gators coach Dan Mullen, who boldly decided to go for it on two, critical fourth-down calls.

The first was on a fourth-and-eight at the Virginia 35 and led to a touchdown four plays later for a 24-14 lead two minutes before halftime.

The other came early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Kyle Trask ran an option play on fourth-and-one at his own 44, pitching it to Perine for a 1-yard gain and first down. Again, the Gators scored two plays later for a 33-21 lead with 9:43 to play in the game.

“I think both teams were calling the game to win,” Mendenhall said. “The fourth-and-eight was a huge play.”

Virginia had its own huge plays, mostly involving Perkins’ arm. He was 28 of 40 passing for 323 yards and four scores, and one haunting interception.

Trailing 31-23, the Cavaliers were driving, all the way down to Florida’s 13 with a little more than five minutes to play. Perkins had gone to senior receiver Hasise Dubois all night, but this time the Gators were ready and picked off the Virginia pass at their own 3-yard line. They converted the lone UVA turnover into a 42-yard field goal with 2:32 to play, making it 36-21.

Had Virginia scored there, things could have gotten interesting, making it at least 33-28 with five minutes to play.

Most of Perkins’ throws were to Dubois, who hauled in 10 catches for 83 yards and two TDs. Terrell Jana and Joe Reed each hauled in seven catches (Jana 126 and a score, Reed 52 and a score).

When it was over, Mendenhall reflected on his 9-5 football team, quite a reverse from a 2-10 start in his first year, four seasons ago.

“I’m thankful to the senior class, those that came, most of whom I didn’t select but honored their commitments,” the coach said. “They started with a 2-10 season and now find themselves on the verge and a great chance to have won the Orange Bowl and set a foundation. I consider them a legacy class in terms of establishing what UVA football really is.”

Florida’s Mullen was impressed with what he saw in Mendenhall’s team.

“You’re looking at a program on the rise,” Mullen said. “Coach Mendenhall took that program over a couple years ago in that short time, and here they are playing the Capital One Orange Bowl. You see how tough, how they compete, how they play hard, play hard for four quarters in everything that they do.”

While Perkins and his teammates agreed that they’re not believers in moral victories, they were proud of the performance they put up, and that the loss to Florida was nothing like their defeat at the hands of Clemson.

“I feel as though we had a couple mistakes on our part in the ACC Championship Game,” Hasise said. “I feel as though [Clemson] didn’t beat us that bad, we made mistakes to beat ourselves. I feel as though today, we came out with the intent that we weren’t going to make any mistakes that would put us down…

“I feel as though our defense played their hearts out, everybody did — from the seniors all the way down to the freshmen. I feel this group has grown from day one, regardless of the injuries or not.”

In the end, it was a matter of Florida having more weapons and using them well. For the most part, Virginia didn’t get burned nearly as bad in the passing game as it did against Clemson.

Trask was 24 of 39 for 305 yards and one touchdown, a 19-yarder to Perine, who scored three TDs in the game (two rushing). Other than a 53-yard strike to Van Jefferson, the Gators only had two long passes, one for 30, another for 20 yards.

What was surprising was Florida’s 244 yards rushing, well above its average on the season.

Virginia managed to put up 375 yards, but only 52 rushing as the Gators’ defense contained Perkins on the ground with a conservative defensive strategy.

(TUESDAY: Perkins and Dubois … how far they came, what an impression they left behind)

Comments

  1. Joe Sizemore says:

    Great article! Well said all the way around. Another great article Jerry!

  2. Dennis Day says:

    I was very impressed with how the team fought last night!

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