MIAMI — The Virginia football team arrived in South Florida on Thursday evening, and the Cavaliers (9-4) are just days away from competing in the first Orange Bowl in program history.
The players are excited as they balance bowl week activities with preparing for the New Year’s Six Bowl against No. 9 Florida (10-2). A few UVa defensive players and defensive coordinator Nick Howell spoke to the media Friday about their preparation and bowl week fun.
It’s the first time this season Howell spoke in a media session, as co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga typically handles those duties.
Enjoying the week
Unlike other games during the year, bowl games are as much celebrations as anything else. The season ends for every bowl team outside the College Football Playoff, regardless of the outcome. There’s more time to prepare, and there’s usually more sightseeing at the game location than a typical regular-season affair. Bowl games matter, but they’re also celebratory.
Finding the right balance of enjoyment and focus becomes a key challenge for each squad.
“You have to have fun while you’re down here,” Virginia safety Joey Blount said. “You’re blessed with the opportunity, and you get to reap the benefits, but also you have to come down and practice … we’re down here for one reason, and that reason is to win this football game.”
The Cavaliers spent Thursday night eating at a Brazilian steakhouse, and Friday night’s schedule featured a charity dinner at Dave and Buster’s. Saturday gives the team a chance to hit the beach with their families, and Sunday is free from media obligations. Monday is game day. It’s a hectic week for the team, and there’s ample time for both practice and sightseeing.
Florida ranks 14th nationally in passing efficiency, and 17th nationally in passing yards per game at 300.4. UVa’s defense has faced three other teams in the top 15 in passing efficiency this season, and the Cavaliers are 1-2 in those games with a win over North Carolina and losses to Louisville and Clemson.
Those three teams have averaged 298 passing yards and three touchdowns per game without throwing a single interception against UVa. They’re averaging 20 yards per completion as well.
“Points are produced by explosive plays,” Howell said. “Our emphasis is to make sure we limit explosive plays.”
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask is asked to do a lot for Florida, and he does it well. Trask is a pocket passer with great size and arm strength. Limiting Trask through tight coverage downfield and quarterback pressure is a key to Virginia’s defensive success.
“He stands strong in the pocket,” Blount said. “Even when the pocket is closing around him, he’ll [stay] on the reads, wait until the last minute and make the throw.”
Weeks of bowl preparation generate an advantage here, as Florida’s red-hot quarterback with 24 touchdown passes to just six interceptions will face a well-prepared Virginia defense. The Cavaliers have used the break to learn Trask’s tendencies and implement a game plan they believe can slow down the junior.
“We’ve had a lot of time to prepare, so we’re feeling confident about the scheme that we have in place, and we’re excited to get after it,” Virginia linebacker Zane Zandier said.
Virginia’s defenders felt they lacked the intensity needed to compete with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. They’re taking it upon themselves to play with more energy and intensity Monday against a top-10 SEC foe.
“Clemson, obviously give them credit, they’re a good football team, and they’re a better team than we are right now, but you’d like that to have been a closer game,” Howell said. “You’d like for our kids to put it out there. One thing we talk about a lot is just — like when you do your very best and you lay it out there, there’s really nothing else you can do. The outcome is the outcome. We talk about surrendering the outcome and going out there and playing as hard as you possibly can, and that did not happen, so hopefully we take that away from that.”
Florida, while an elite program, isn’t quite at the level of a College Football Playoff contender this season, which may help reduce the intimidation factor just a bit.
Beating the Gators will require a stellar performance, though. Florida is 10-2 with eight double-digit victories this season. The team’s only losses are defeats to No. 1 LSU and No. 5 Georgia.
Beyond the game
Linebacker Charles Snowden prides himself on making an impact on and off the field. The junior is one of four Cavaliers with at least 10 tackles for loss, and he’s fourth on the team with 67 tackles. Off the field, Snowden volunteers his time with local community groups.
Snowden also includes his gender pronouns in his Twitter bio, a move uncommon to most college football players.
“There could be a kid in Virginia who their gender pronouns aren’t necessarily as black and white as most people, so to see a football player, maybe someone that’s on TV, to have that in their bio, it’ll make them comfortable putting it in their bio,” Snowden said.
Whether it’s putting his gender pronouns in his Twitter bio or volunteering in the community, Snowden cares about making an impact beyond the gridiron.
“I think when given a position where you can do something, you probably should try to,” Snowden said. “Even if it’s just little things, just trying to help as many people as I can.”