No. 24 University of Virginia football pushed the no. 9 Florida Gators in the 2019 Capital One Orange Bowl, UVA’s first ever appearance in the prestigious bowl. The Cavaliers’ stars starred; however, quarterback Bryce Perkins, wide receiver Hasise Dubois and company were not enough to overcome the Gators at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on Monday night.
Florida (11-2), whose only regular season losses came to College Football Playoff no. 1 LSU and no. 5 Georgia, was known primarily for a fast, stingy defense complimented by an efficient and productive passing game led by quarterback Kyle Trask. The Gators flashed those aspects as well as something new – a surprisingly potent rushing attack – to take down the Cavaliers (9-5).
Senior running back Lamical Perine, who averaged 44.83 yards rushing per game during the regular season, exploded for a 61-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage, giving his team a 7-0 lead 40 seconds in. The 61-yard burst was part of a shaky start for the Hoos, whose offense went 3-and-out on their opening series.
A defensive play steadied the upstart ACC Coastal Division champion Cavaliers, who were looking to rebound from a 62-17 drubbing to Clemson in the ACC Championship game earlier this month. Redshirt junior cornerback Nick Grant intercepted Trask on 2nd-and-11 on Florida’s second offensive series. Perkins connected with junior wide receiver Terrell Jana for a 34-yard touchdown on the very next play, pulling the Hoos even at 7-7.
Florida responded with scores on its next three possessions to assume control. The Gators drove 75, 73, and 74 yards on those drives, each one lasting over five minutes. Perine, a thorn in Virginia’s side all game, capped off the first drive with a 16-yard touchdown reception. The senior running back’s touchdown catch was one of three third down conversions the Gators had on the drive. The score came on 3rd and 10.
UVA answered Perine’s second score of the game with a long touchdown drive of its own. Perkins and Dubois capped off a 14-play, 88-yard drive in spectacular fashion with one of the best 9-yard touchdown passes you’ll see. Dubois’ highlight-reel touchdown catch, something UVA fans have grown accustomed to seeing throughout 2019, tied the game at 14.
Hurdled one defender, stiff-armed another and found his man for the TD 😮
— ESPN (@espn) December 31, 2019
An Evan McPherson 23-yard field goal and a Perine 10-yard touchdown run boosted Florida’s lead to 24-14. Meanwhile, the Gators defense imposed its will on the Cavaliers, forcing punts on UVA’s final two first half drives. UVA’s offensive woes spilled over into the second half as the Cavaliers’ first three possessions of the third quarter all resulted in punts.
As the offense waned, the Cavalier defense rose to the occasion. A McPherson 49-yard field goal was all the Gator offense produced on their first three possessions of the second half. This kept the Cavaliers within striking distance at 27-14 as the fourth quarter began.
Virginia pulled to within six early in the fourth quarter, when senior receiver Joe Reed took a short pass from Perkins and ran seven yards into the end zone. UVA’s touchdown was sparked by a 52-yard pass from Perkins to senior tight end Tanner Cowley on the final play of the third quarter.
UVA stayed within reach of Florida until the end, but it was the Gators who made the plays to secure the Orange Bowl title. It took Trask and company three minutes and 32 seconds to respond to Reed’s touchdown with one of their own, a 1-yard rush score by the 6’5” signal caller. The 65-yard touchdown drive included a 30-yard pass from Trask to wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland and a 23-yard rush by Perine to the Cavalier 1. Trask’s 2-point conversion pass attempt failed, and the Gators led 33-21 with 9:33 remaining.
Virginia’s comeback hopes were dealt a big blow on the ensuing drive. The Cavalier offense marched to the Florida 13 before a Perkins sideline pass to Dubois was intercepted at the 3 by freshman corner Kaiir Elam with 3:32 remaining. Van Jefferson took a short pass from Trask and raced 53 yards on the next play, ultimately setting up a McPherson 42-yard field goal that pushed the Gator lead to 36-21. More importantly, UVA was forced to use all three timeouts on the drive.
Perkins and Dubois connected on one final touchdown as Cavaliers, a 2-yard score to get the Hoos within eight with less than a minute left, but Virginia’s comeback attempt ended when A.J. Mejia’s onside kick attempt was recovered by Florida.
Florida’s offense proved too much for a depleted Cavalier defense to overcome in Miami. The Hoos lost three defensive starters – All-American corner Bryce Hall, who was out since early October, safety Brenton Nelson, who missed the final six games, and linebacker Jordan Mack, who missed the second half of the ACC title game and the entire Orange Bowl – who were instrumental figures on the balanced, formidable unit that started the season. A vulnerable Cavalier defense consistently surrendered big plays in the latter half of 2019. While the unit made enough plays to help the Hoos achieve a perfect November, a division title, and a Commonwealth Cup, Virginia needed more on Monday night.
Not including last-minute drives at the end of the first and second halves, Florida scored on seven of 10 possessions. The Gators had eight passing plays of 15 yards or more. Their previously feeble rushing attack produced six plays of over 15 yards. Perine rushed 13 times for 138 yards and two scores, adding five catches for 43 yards and a score. Florida totaled 244 yards on the ground, averaging 7.2 yards per carry in the process. The Gators averaged 120 yards rushing per game and four yards per carry during the regular season.
Virginia seemed to confuse Trask early at times with its pass coverage, but the Gators signal caller finished with 305 yards passing, a touchdown and an interception. He added 37 yards rushing on eight carries. Jefferson led the Gators with 129 yards receiving.
“I think [the defense] hung in very well,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I think especially in the second half they played as we would have hoped they played.”
“The defensive unit today gave us a great chance all the way to an onside kick to win the game,” Mendenhall added. “We didn’t, so it wasn’t quite enough, but I was proud of their effort.
For Virginia, its record-setting signal caller came through with one final memorable performance. Perkins finished the Orange Bowl with 323 yards passing, four touchdowns and an interception. UVA’s “big three” receivers – Dubois, Reed, and junior Terrell Jana – shined as well, totaling 24 catches for 261 yards and four scores. Dubois concluded his career and a breakout senior season with 10 catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Reed had seven receptions for 52 yards and a score. Jana, who will return to lead the receivers next season after a breakout junior campaign, hauled in seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown. Cowley had three catches for 60 yards in his final game as a Hoo.
Florida, which according to Mendenhall played a relatively vanilla brand of defense throughout, held the dynamic Perkins in check rushing-wise, allowing the senior 24 yards on 14 carries. Virginia had 52 yards rushing on 21 attempts. A Perkins 10-yard run was UVA’s longest rush of the day.
This Virginia team may not have reached the 10-win pinnacle, something the program has accomplished just once in its history, but it did win nine games for the seventh time in school history. Add in a Commonwealth Cup, a Coastal Division title for the first time ever, and an Orange Bowl appearance, and the season was a success. Mendenhall is pleased with the direction of his program.
“I’m really proud of my team, the culture that we’ve established, the competitive spirit, the intensity and the camaraderie that’s displayed from beginning to end,” said Mendenhall, who has led the Hoos to 25 wins and three bowl appearances in four seasons. “We’re on a mission to just simply establish that you can have world-class academics and be at the top tier of college football, as well. That’s what’s happening at the University of Virginia.”
Mendenhall paid homage to the program’s “pioneers”, the seniors who helped create the current culture and achieve high levels of success, as well as the 2019 stars.
“I’m thankful to the senior class, those that came, most of whom I didn’t select but honored their commitments when I came to the University of Virginia, that 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,” said Mendenhall, who honored members of the senior class by having them line up behind Orange Bowl captains Perkins, Dubois and Reed in the pregame coin toss. “I consider them a legacy class in terms of establishing what UVA football really is.”
Playing in the Orange Bowl “meant the world, and not just what we did but how we did it,” Perkins said.
“I’m not into moral victories because we lost the game, but I’m proud of these guys, proud of how we worked, and I’ proud of just the culture we set and the standard. When I first got here [in January of 2018] it was the new standard, but now it’s the standard for the guys coming up, and this program is transcending. Next year these guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with. We don’t take losing lightly, so we’re definitely going to learn from it, and I’m proud to see what the future holds.”
– Highlights, courtesy of the ACC Digital Network