Monday night brings Wahoo football history as 24th ranked Virginia (9-4) plays in its first ever New Year's Six bowl game. It's their second ever major bowl game joining the 1991 Sugar Bowl in program record books. The SEC will have supplied the opponent in each game as the 9th ranked Florida Gators (10-2) will occupy the opposite sideline in Hard Rock Stadium.
The Hoos will look to win their second consecutive bowl game, both against SEC opponents, finish the season ranked, and win ten games in a season for just the second time in program history. Some may think that the Hoos are just happy to be there. But this group has a ton to play for without even including bouncing back from the ACC Championship Game performance against Clemson.
It all goes down Monday night at 8:00 on ESPN.
The Hoos are giving a nod back to the Welsh era as they go white, orange, white. This is also the combo worn by UVA in the 1984 Peach Bowl.
And per UVAEquipment's Twitter account, the Orange Bowl requested the color vs color matchup instead of the road team (Florida) wearing the traditional white jersey.
There's going to be A LOT of orange and blue on the field Monday night.
Most of us weren't alive yet the only time the Hoos and Gators met on the gridiron.
Florida and Virginia have played once before in 1959.— Winsipedia (@Winsipedia) December 16, 2019
This is UVA’s first appearance in Orange Bowl. The last time Florida played in the Orange Bowl was in 2002, Coach Steve Spurrier would resign two days later#GoGators #GoHoos #UFvsUVA #CapitalOneBowlhttps://t.co/jxI9hFLJMm pic.twitter.com/k2LY1y0poc
Florida won that game, played in Gainesville, 55 to 10.
Keys To Victory
The Hoos throw the ball on just over 53% of their offensive plays. That's nice balance but it often seems that the ratio is more like 75/25 in favor of the pass. You can thank Bryce Perkins for keeping things close to even as UVA doesn't feature a traditional running game.
So as they look to move the ball down the field through the air, pass blocking takes on enormous importance.
The Florida defensive line will present a significant challenge.
The Gators' pass rush is lead by All-SEC First Team defensive end Jonathan Greenard. The 6-3 263-pound senior from Georgia transferred to Florida from Louisville after his redshirt sophomore season. During his senior campaign with the Gators he posted 51 tackles including 8.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He's forced 2 fumbles, broken up 3 passes, and received credit for 8 additional QB hurries. Greenard also has 1 interception and an 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown to his credit.
Greenard's 8.5 sacks led the SEC this season.
Florida also led the SEC in sacks for the season with 46. The next highest, LSU, was 11 sacks behind the Gators.
Other Florida pass rushers to watch for will be redshirt senior defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga (3 sacks in 5 games), redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Zachary Carter (4.5 sacks), and freshman linebacker Mohamoud Diabate (4.5 sacks).
UVA has struggled a bit against standout defensive lines this season. They gave up 8 sacks to Notre Dame, 5 sacks to Miami, and 2 sacks to Clemson. It's also worth noting that the trend is heading in the correct direction.
In big games against decided favorites, the underdog must take advantage of most opportunities they earn, or are given, over the course of the game. It's an essential part of the underdog's upset blueprint.
Against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, the Hoos won the time of possession battle. They gained over 100 yards on the ground (104). They had nearly 400 yards of total offense (387). They marched down the field on the game's opening possession and got the ball within Clemson's 15-yard line.
But the Hoos threw an interception in the endzone coming away with no points on the opening drive. They turned the ball over three times. And they managed only 17 points despite those nearly 400 yards of total offense.
That's not going to cut it against Florida.
Instead, UVA must cash in opportunities, big and small, as they come.
Florida enters the Orange Bowl with the 16th ranked pass offense in FBS. Prior to the Orange Bowl, the most prolific pass offense faced by the Hoos was Clemson. The Tigers rank 20th in FBS passing offense.
On paper, this appears to be a huge mismatch.
The Gators' passing attack is led by redshirt junior QB Kyle Trask (6-5 239 pounds), sophomore tight end Kyle Pitts (51 catches, 610 yards, 5 touchdowns), and redshirt senior wide receiver Van Jefferson (43 catches, 528 yards, 6 touchdowns).
The Gators also boast eight players with 20 or more receptions on the season.
Trask played in only 11 of 12 Florida games this year. Despite that, he passed for 2,636 yards while completing 67.6% of his passes. Trask threw 24 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions. His passer rating of 159.2 ranks 13th in FBS (behind Sam Howell and Trevor Lawrence, however). His Total QBR or 81.4 ranks 12th in FBS (behind Micale Cunningham of Louisville and Trevor Lawrence).
Tennessee: “There wasn’t really anything out there that we hadn’t seen all week."— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) September 22, 2019
Evidently, Kyle Trask felt the same way. UF's QB feasted on Vols MLBs and safety Nigel Warrior.
Here's a compilation of wide open throws between the numbers. pic.twitter.com/ABHD9HZtZt
And more on Florida's passing scheme...
When Kyle Trask took over as the #Gators QB, the passing offense transitioned to quick routes to effectively move the ball.— Zach Goodall (@zach_goodall) December 27, 2019
WRs Van Jefferson and Josh Hammond broke down the keys to UF's successful transition - route-running prowess and trust.https://t.co/F88lbBRe6G
Given the Hoos' pass defense results against Clemson last time out and severe personnel limitations in the secondary, why even play the game?
For one, heading into the Belk Bowl against South Carolina last year, the UVA defense faced similar personnel limitations on the defensive line. The long layoff between the regular season end and bowl game allowed the UVA coaching staff to cook up a defensive scheme that mitigated those limitations. And the available players played their asses off too (they deserve a ton of credit for that effort). The end result was a shutout victory for the Hoos.
With another long layoff between the ACC Championship Game and the Orange Bowl, the UVA defensive staff will certainly have come up with an interesting plan for the Gators' pass offense. I have a ton of faith that we'll be impressed by the scheme implemented for this game, not to mention the effort given by all the players on defense.
Let's not ignore the UVA pass rush either. UVA's 45 sacks are tied for 7th in FBS with Penn State (1 sack less than 5th ranked Florida). That will factor into the game.
Trask, who profiles as a pocket passer, is certainly a load. He's tough to bring down which results in him often sitting in the pocket waiting to make the throws instead of looking to run.
That will present opportunities.
Using the pass rush to its fullest extent will only help the pass defense. Pressure can force Trask to make rushed throws, bad decisions, and present opportunities to generate turnovers off the Gator passing attack. And Trask's tendency to stay in the pocket at all costs makes him vulnerable to taking big hits or being sacked.
Check out the HOOS Place Orange Bowl preview podcast. It features special guest appearances from former UVA football players Ahmad "Ball Hawk" Hawkins and Earl Sims. Everyone knows Hawkins, but Sims is the head coach of Gulliver Prep of Miami. Sims, who played for both coaches Welsh and Groh, coached current Hoos Mandy Alonso, D'Sean Perry, and Sean Moore in high school.
HOOS Place Studio Presents a special podcast, Episode 9 the Orange and Blue Bowl Preview, with Seattle, StLou and special guests EARL SIMS and AHMAD HAWKINS! Get StLou's analysis and unique footage from Earl and Ahmad you will not hear anywhere else!https://t.co/vPMtYBzpzk— Hoos Place (@HoosPlace) December 28, 2019
Heading into game day, Florida is holding as a 14.5 favorite. ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Gators an 81.8% chance to win this game.
Given Florida's strengths in the passing game and UVA's depleted secondary, it's hard to argue with that too much.
For the fans, this is almost a "happy to be there" moment.
Rest assured, however, that the coaching staff and players will not have that mindset.
I suspect they'll play with a ton of emotion and effort, carrying a chip on their shoulder from the ACC Championship Game. They'll have also heard naysayers giving them absolutely no shot to win this game.
UVA will leave it all on the field. Bryce Perkins will go out moving the ball more than most expect against the Gators. And the UVA defense will surprise.
The game is going to be closer than the casual observer, and many in the media, expect.
35 to 24, Gators win.