Mendenhall: Orange Bowl another chance to accelerate UVA program

orange bowlFirst look at Florida, Virginia’s opponent in the Orange Bowl, tells you … yeah, they’re good.

“Certainly they’re top 10 in most categories. Very talented,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week.

The Gators were ninth in the final CFP poll after a 10-2 regular season, the losses coming to #1 LSU and #5 Georgia.

It’s another challenge for a Cavaliers team that played its way into its first ACC Championship Game with a 9-3 regular season, then got a bit of a smack upside the head when it got there.

Defending national champion Clemson dominated on its way to a 62-17 win in that one.

Mendenhall, a glass-half-full guy if there ever was one, looks back at that one, and to the challenge up ahead with Florida, as chances to learn and grow.

“You’ve probably heard this term before: our loss to Clemson was falling forward,” Mendenhall said. “Meaning, I put it in the same category as our first game against Virginia Tech down there, our loss to Navy in the bowl game, and now that one (the loss to Clemson). I view those three as critical moments in this program, in this era, under our staff, for improvement. It exposed things we certainly have to get better at, and I love that process.

“I hate the losses, but I love the learning,” Mendenhall said. “I put those three together, and some of most impactful things that have happened since I’ve been the coach at UVA, with the potential to help us go to places we couldn’t have as early without being in those, as painful as they are.”

Mendenhall then offered some early thoughts on the Gators.

“Florida is not as balanced as Clemson, meaning the quarterback run, the running back run, and then the pass game,” Mendenhall said. “Florida is much more spread-oriented, throw first, with very talented wide receivers, four or five at a time. Meaning empty formations. They have a very capable running back, and skilled. The quarterback is not necessarily a run threat or run-first player, more of a drop-back passer. So, the style is different, but the talent on the edge is similar to what we just saw.”

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, in his first season as the starter, put up a 159.3 passer rating, fourth in the SEC (two of the guys ahead of him: 2019 Heisman winner Joe Burrow, 2018 Heisman winner Tua Tagovailoa), with 24 TDs, 6 INTs, 2,636 yards, and a 67.6 percent completion rate.

Eight Gators registered at least 20 catches on the season. The top target is sophomore tight end Kyle Pitts, a 6’6”, 239-pounder and first-team All-SEC selection who is a big, physical, matchup nightmare (2019: 51 catches, 610 yards, 12.0 yards per catch, 5 TDs).

The wideouts include 6’2” redshirt senior Van Jefferson (43 catches, 528 yards, 12.3 yards per catch, 6 TDs), 6’0” senior Freddie Swain (35 catches, 496 yards, 14.2 yards per catch, 7 TDs) and 6’5” junior Trevon Grimes (32 catches, 484 yards, 15.1 yards per catch, 3 TDs).

The Gators have had troubles getting the ground game going, averaging just 120.3 yards per game, last in the SEC in 2019. The featured back is 5’11” senior Lamical Perine, who ran for 538 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry this season.

The issue with the run game is not a factor of poor play from the O-line, though. Props to the big uglies for getting through an SEC schedule having given up just 24 sacks.

The Gators defense was second in the SEC in total defense (299.0 yards per game), rushing defense (107.0 yards per game) and scoring defense (14.4 points per game).

First-team All-SEC defensive end Jonathan Greenard was second on the Florida team this season with 51 tackles, and led the D with 14.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.

The D had one other All-SEC first-teamer, junior cornerback C.J. Henderson (33 tackles, 11 passes defensed, 3 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 QBH), but UVA won’t see Henderson in uniform, because he’s sitting the game out to begin preparing for the NFL Draft.

Even without Henderson, the Florida defense presents a challenge, and the offense certainly does.

Mendenhall is all about challenges, and the work that it takes to try to rise to them.

The sting of the lesson learned from Clemson being fresh in mind …

“The things that I framed to our team going into the game was mindset and preparation: mindset that we are capable, and preparation knowing that we’ve been in that setting before in terms of the stadium. Not that game, but we acknowledged it and thought we prepared well for it,” Mendenhall said.

“Like the other two games I mentioned, there was a gap there, which I’m responsible for that, to get our team ready to play. Having done that one, I expect us to be more ready and comfortable in this next setting, which will be similar as we were in that one.

“So, that’s my hope.”

Story by Chris Graham

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