MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Virginia entered the Orange Bowl as one of the biggest underdogs of the bowl season. The Cavaliers fell to Florida 36-28, but the Cavaliers held their own on a national stage after a 62-17 drubbing by Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
UVa still has work to do to become a national power, but this season was a step in the right direction. Florida’s only losses this season were to LSU and Georgia, a pair of top-5 teams. The loss hurts and there were missed opportunities, however, and those remain in the Cavaliers’ mind through the offseason.
Virginia prides itself on its toughness and defensive ability. Coming into the season, UVa had the makings of a defensive powerhouse. Unfortunately, injuries crushed the Cavaliers.
With several projected starters missing in the season finale, the Cavaliers couldn’t stop the Gators. Florida amassed 549 yards, including a whopping 244 yards on the ground.
Virginia’s offense did enough for the Cavaliers to hang in the game, but ultimately the inability to stop Florida sunk UVa’s chances.
Throughout the season, UVa quarterback Bryce Perkins has been the team’s main offensive weapon. While having a quarterback lead the way is far from uncommon, the Cavaliers’ ability to generate offense outside of Perkins is almost nonexistent.
Perkins’ receivers helped him out Monday, but the Gators slowed Perkins in the run game. Perkins only rushed for 24 yards, and his teammates only rushed for 28 yards.
UVa’s offense performed admirably, especially in the passing game, but the lack of consistent contributors outside of Perkins hurt the team all season. That problem remained in the season finale.
Perkins excelled, however, becoming the first quarterback all season to surpass 300 passing yards against Florida’s defense. He also became the first player all year to throw four touchdown passes against the Gators. Even Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow fell short of those numbers.
Perkins finished with 323 passing yards and four touchdowns in his final game in a UVa jersey.
“Bryce is the exact person we were hopeful to have lead our program, and I’m talking person first and then player second,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “It was and is the perfect fit. I couldn’t have hoped for anything else. I wouldn’t have wanted anything or anybody else. I’m just grateful.”
Gators find ground game
Coming into Monday’s Orange Bowl, Florida was averaging 120.3 rushing yards per game. The Gators’ Lamical Perine rushed for a 61-yard touchdown on the game’s third play, and the Gators racked up 189 rushing yards in the first half.
Perine finished with 181 yards and three touchdowns on 18 touches, and earned MVP honors.
The pass-heavy Gators didn’t completely change their approach, however. They threw the ball 26 times in the first 30 minutes and ran the ball 17 times, averaging 11.1 yards per carry. Florida finished the game with an impressive 244 yards on the ground.
“I guess they did run it a little bit more than we maybe had game planned for,” Virginia linebacker Zane Zandier said. “I wasn’t surprised. They had because they had a good running back and they had a pretty good o-line.”
Virginia’s defense allowed over 200 rushing yards just once coming into the ACC Championship. Both Clemson (211) and Florida (244) surpassed the 200-yard threshold.
In their final game, the entire Virginia senior class took the field for the coin toss. They stood behind the team’s captains and locked arms during the toss.
“I don’t know how else to honor them,” Mendenhall said. “Anything I do doesn’t seem to be quite enough, but they’re amazing young people.”
The four-year members of the class arrived in 2016 — Mendenhall’s first season — and wrapped up their careers Monday night. The group took part in an unbelievable turnaround, going 2-10 in their first season before winning nine games and a division title in their final seasons.
Bryce Perkins, Jordan Mack, Bryce Hall, Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois are among the notable seniors leaving the program. Both Hall and Mack missed the game with injuries.
Perkins played well in his final outing, doing everything he could to keep the Cavaliers in the game. Both Reed and Dubois also secured touchdown receptions. The result wasn’t what the Cavaliers wanted, but the seniors helped change the course of the program.
“It meant the world, and not just what we did but how we did it, and thinking about all the years Coach Mendenhall has been here, and I was here for two of them, just how every year the unbroken growth of this team and the spirit and the bond of this team is unmatched,” Perkins said.