Virginia, in falling to Florida in Orange Bowl, proves it belongs
So, it’s OK to say it.
That one was a moral victory.
Might have been more than that, actually.
This was a Florida team, for starters, that was a play, at most two, away from being in the College Football Playoff.
And then the Virginia team. Wow, that last game against a CFP-caliber team, Clemson, three weeks ago, was a beatdown, 62-17.
That Virginia team didn’t seem like it believed it belonged on the field that night.
The Gators, being Gators, smelled blood in the water, and came in wanting to prove to the college football world that they had deserved to be in the playoff.
Virginia, come on, was just hoping to be able to hang around.
The game plan for defensive coordinator Nick Howell going in wasn’t, hey, here’s what we do to shut down that high-powered Gators offense, because Virginia, already thin even when it was a defense-first team back in September, had to play its most important games in 2019 without its best defensive players, Bryce Hall and Jordan Mack.
The best you could really hope for against the Gators was slowing them down, maybe forcing a turnover, getting a stop in the red zone to force a field-goal try,
You got that.
A first-quarter interception by Nick Grant set up the first UVA touchdown.
Two promising Florida drives ended in Evan McPherson field goals.
The Virginia offense also faced a bit of an uphill battle against the SEC’s second-best defense, but Bryce Perkins was solid – 28-of-40 passing for 323 yards, four touchdowns.
The Gators kept Perkins from doing anything with his feet, sacking him three times, and limiting the senior to 24 yards on 14 tries, including the sacks.
You look at the stats – Florida gained 549 yards, Virginia 375 – and, that was competitive?
No way, right?
But when Perkins connected with Joe Reed for his third TD pass, a seven-yarder with 13:05 to go, it was a one-score game, 27-21 Florida.
The Gators answered with a Kyle Trask 1-yard TD keeper that made it 33-21, but UVA got the ball back into the red zone on its next possession, before its one offensive mistake of the night, an underthrown third-down fade from Perkins intended for Hasise Dubois that was intercepted by Kair Elam with 5:11 to go, put the kibosh on things.
You thought, anyway.
Another McPherson field goal made it 36-21 Florida with 2:32 to go.
Virginia wasn’t done. Perkins led the Cavaliers on one last scoring drive – eight plays, 75 yards, culminating with a 2-yard TD pass to Dubois.
Florida had to cover an onside kick to clinch it.
It was supposed to be a lot easier. Vegas had the Gators as a 14.5-point favorite, and that seemed generous when you factored in Florida taking #1 LSU into the fourth quarter, and Virginia falling apart three weeks ago in Charlotte.
Trask put up some numbers – 305 yards, mainly – but had to work for them, completing a pedestrian 24 of his 39 pass attempts, with a passer rating of 130.6, down significantly from the 159.3 passer rating he had posted in the 2019 regular season.
The media contingent given votes for the MVP award collectively decided to bestow that honor on Florida tailback Lamical Perine, who had 138 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns, including a 61-yarder on the Gators’ opening possession.
But, come on, we all know that the best player on the field on this night, by a wide margin, was Perkins, who willed his team into winning the ACC Coastal, and nearly willed his team to an Orange Bowl trophy.
And, due respect to Florida coach Dan Mullen and his staff, but UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff was the better group tonight, somehow taking this one to the final seconds despite being outgained by 174 yards, giving up 300+ yards through the air, 200+ yards on the ground, after having fought an uphill battle basically dating back to the first week of November just to get here.
Spit, tape, smoke, mirrors, somehow it added up to nine wins and an Orange Bowl invite.
The question coming in wasn’t so much, can Virginia win this game, but rather, can Virginia Football actually compete on this stage?
Another blowout loss, akin to the one three weeks ago in Charlotte, and the story from this 2019 Virginia season would have been, see, told you back when you had them the preseason favorites in the Coastal.
What they showed Monday night in Hard Rock Stadium was that they’d learned from that ugly loss to Clemson.
They fixed what they could fix.
They made Florida work to get their points.
They put up 28 points and 375 yards on the SEC’s second-best defense.
The game came down to a recovered onside kick in the final minute.
Three weeks ago, Virginia was overwhelmed.
Monday night, Virginia proved that it belonged.
The next game is Georgia, in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, on another Monday night, Labor Day Night, in fact, another national-TV game against another top-level SEC team.
Fully expect Virginia Football to show more growth between now and then.
That Monday in the SEC should be interesting, is what I’m saying.
Put nothing past Mendenhall and his group.
Three seasons ago, Virginia was 2-10, including a blowout loss at home to Richmond.
It would have been impossible to fathom then that 2019 would end with an onside kick in the Orange Bowl.
That just happened.
And it wasn’t an end, but rather, a beginning.
Story by Chris Graham