When the Virginia football team kicks off on Monday night in the Orange Bowl, it will be in search of back-to-back bowl wins for the first time since taking consecutive Continental Tire Bowl crowns in 2002 and 2003. That’s just the latest possibility on the “since” list for the program under Bronco Mendenhall.
In Mendenhall’s fourth season with the Hoos, they’ve:
- Posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2004 and 2005.
- Won a bowl game for the first time since 2005.
- Made three straight bowl appearances for the first time since 2003-2005.
- Earned their first Orange Bowl appearance since … well, ever.
That, of course, means this could be the first Orange Bowl win in program history too.
“Yeah, it’s a huge opportunity for the program, first New Year’s Six,” UVA tight end Tanner Cowley said. “I think it just shows the growth and direction. Just being here shows where we’ve been stacking up, but winning would just be huge for the program and the fans.”
To get a victory, the Cavaliers will need to deal with No. 9 Florida. The Gators have posted back-to-back 10-win seasons and they’re only losses this year came against Georgia (24-17) and LSU (42-28). The opponents, of course, are also playing in their home state so there should be a certain comfort and support factor built in.
UVA, at least, has played at Hard Rock Stadium before. The Hoos just want a better result than that Oct. 11 game with Miami. They lost 17-9 in a prime time game on ESPN and lost Bryce Hall for the season the last time they took the field at this stadium.
Kris’ Keys To Winning
1. Hold the line
As you’ve likely read by now, these two teams feature two of the nation’s most disruptive defenses. Florida comes into this game with 46 sacks on the year, while UVA checks in with 45. Both of those rank in the top 10. For the Hoos to have a chance in this one, they’ll need to keep the pressure off of quarterback Bryce Perkins as much as possible. Yes, he’s a dynamic playmaker and an escape artist too, but teams that can pressure the pocket and keep lane integrity have given the Cavaliers trouble at times. That also eats up some of Perkins’ scramble rushing yards that are such a big part of the offense’s success on some drives. This is a big test in the season finale.
2. Hold on to stops
With injuries piling up on defense, the Cavaliers have hung in there but have become vulnerable to big plays again over the back half of the season. Against Clemson in the ACC title game, those issues were compounded by poor tackling where the Tigers’ speed and explosiveness created bad angles and bad finishing technique from the pursuit. Clemson and North Carolina broke apart the defense with huge passing plays in particular. Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Liberty all scored on long pass plays too. Florida can offer challenges in that sense. Five different players have a reception of 60+ yards this season and tight end Kyle Pitts leads the team with 610 receiving yards from a position that has given UVA’s defense trouble during the Mendenhall era.
3. Help the cause
I’m sure fans get tired of reading about turnovers – that’s always a key, we know – but in games where you’re the underdog, creating some turnovers is the easiest way to help your chances. Virginia has created just 17 takeaways this season (that’s tied for 69th nationally) despite playing a pressure-style defense. Here’s a key stat, though: 16 of those 17 turnovers created have come in wins. If the Hoos can provide the offense with extra possessions and perhaps short fields, that will increase the chances of a win.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
This season was set up as a season of opportunity for the Hoos and they’ve delivered in a big way. They won the Coastal Division for the first time. They took down Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years. They’re back in a bowl game for the third straight year. They won more games this year than last year again.
How fitting that the final game of 2019 is also a game of opportunity. The Cavaliers are in the Orange Bowl for the first time and playing a top 10 team in Florida. At stake: the chance for 10 wins in a season for just the second time in program history. Bronco Mendenhall put that in the proper context at his press conference: “The University of Virginia has one 10-win season in 130 years of football.”
So the question is simple: can they get it done? This team has shown a lot of resilience to battle through injuries and a couple of tough defeats at Miami and Louisville to go undefeated in November. They play hard throughout games. They carry themselves well in wins and losses. I expect them to be in this game for all those reasons. I expect Bryce Perkins to have one last great performance in the tank. The concerns for me are Florida’s team speed, big play ability, and pressure defense. I think that might be too much. I think the Wahoos hang in there but ultimately fall short. FLORIDA 38, VIRGINIA 31. Season to date: 10-3.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Virginia. In the Orange Bowl. Hard to believe? Considering where the program was four seasons ago, you bet it is, at least for me. Coach Bronco Mendenhall described being in the Orange Bowl as “surreal”, an apt description I think, but I don’t think for a minute that the Hoos are just happy to be playing in one of the most prestigious bowl games in the country.
UVA made significant strides in 2019, capturing the ACC Coastal Division title for the first time ever and defeating Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years chief among them. The players are focused on adding more achievements to the list – an Orange Bowl title, becoming just the second UVA team in school history to win 10 games in a season, and the chance to prove on a national scene against a top 10 team that this program is arriving.
The Wahoos will be ready to play. Star quarterback Bryce Perkins and UVA’s outstanding trio of receivers should have some success against a fast and stingy Florida defense. I can see the Hoos posting around 20 points on the Gators. Unfortunately, I don’t see Virginia having an answer for Florida’s passing game led by quarterback Kyle Trask. UVA is just too depleted, with the latest loss being speedy inside linebacker Jordan Mack, who plays a key role rushing the quarterback as well as in pass defense.
Major losses in the secondary already had Virginia scrambling toward the end of the season. They were able to overcome those losses for a perfect November, but, even with the defensive coaches having time to prepare (I think this will help Virginia), I don’t see the Cavalier defense making enough stops to pull out a win. A great season is not diminished as UVA plays well against Florida before falling short. FLORIDA 30, VIRGINIA 20. Season to date: 9-4.