No. 9 Florida 36, No. 24 Virginia 28
Here it is, a week after the Orange Bowl as I write this sentence, and I am ready for the next UVa football game. Anyone else missing Wahoos on the gridiron? There was a time not too long ago when the season seemed to end in early November -- or even earlier -- as apathy set in and fans turned their attention fully to the basketball team.
That's no longer the case. This feeling is bittersweet, but much better than that one. This year, the Cavaliers completed their first undefeated November since 1999, beat archrival Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003, won the Coastal Division for the first time, played in the ACC championship (actually "competing" in the ACC title game should be one of the program's next goals), and played a close game against a double-digit win SEC school in a New Year's Six bowl.
While the Wahoos and especially the program's seniors would not go down without a fight against the Gators as the clock ticked down to all zeroes, there were many missed opportunities, not only to make the final score closer, but to win the game. So while it was awesome to see the team compete on that big stage, the end result could've been even better. Here's a further breakdown of Virginia's loss in the Orange Bowl:
Right off the bat, the defense had a huge missed opportunity. On the game's first play from scrimmage, Florida quarterback Kyle Trask passed the ball, safety Joey Blount deflected it, and it then ricocheted toward cornerback Nick Grant -- who got a hand on it -- and linebacker Nick Jackson. Finally, as the ball hit the ground, linebacker Zane Zandier dove and secured possession too late. I think Grant may have completed the pick had the receiver he was defending not been in the way. Unfortunately, two plays later, Lamical Perine took a handoff 61 yards for a touchdown when De'Vante Cross fell down and could not make the tackle. I am going to talk about lots of moments like this, and we can never truly know what would've happened in any one game had certain plays had different outcomes, but add them up, and we know UVa would've had a better chance at pulling off the upset. So for this one, if Virginia gets a pick, it could've gone up 7-0 or 3-0 instead of falling behind 7-0.
On Virginia's first drive, I was disappointed with the third-and-1 call. It didn't end up mattering too much since UVa went on to tie the game 7-7 anyway, but the designed Bryce Perkins run on third-and-1 went nowhere. Over his two years, I thought Perkins was his at best on broken plays and pass-play scrambles. Did he have some success on designed runs? Of course, notably one of the long touchdown runs against Virginia Tech came off of that kind of play. But he seemed to flourish in the spontaneous moments, not the structured ones. I would've preferred a Wayne Tualapapa handoff there, or a short pass, which is how Virginia later converted a fourth-and-1.
But that missed chance wasn't that significant because of Grant's crazy-athletic interception on the ensuing Florida drive. Defensive end Richard Burney -- who said he intends to apply for a medical hardship waiver and a sixth year of eligibility -- put great pressure on Trask, hitting him as he threw the ball, and then Grant did a fantastic job of tracking the ball and leaping for the pick. The ball actually grazed the fingertips of Florida receiver Freddie Swain as it came down, but Grant showed great concentration and held on.
Virginia went right into attack mode after the turnover, and I loved it. Perkins pump-faked, then found Terrell Jana in the back of the end zone on a really pretty long pass to tie the game. I was pleased to see UVa make that type of aggressive call. Perkins has struggled on deep balls, but that one was a thing of beauty. And Jana, throughout this game, continued to showcase just how much he has improved over the past year. ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay before the game basically said UVa's offense was just Perkins, overlooking the running backs and receivers. Right after this play, fans got to have some fun with that comment, including yours truly.
But according to McShay we don’t have any good WRs. https://t.co/4OZO6gNYx9— Aaron Perryman (@hooamp) December 31, 2019
The next Florida drive was painful, because the Cavaliers had many chances to force a punt but instead, the Gators scored a touchdown. On third-and-9, Florida picked up 19 yards on a screen pass to Perine. On third-and-3, running back Dameon Pierce got four yards. On second-and-4, UVa had Pierce stopped in the backfield but couldn't get him on the ground, and he fought for five yards. Finally, on third-and-10, Cross hit Perine after a catch but couldn't tackle him, and the back scored his second TD. It was an infuriating drive, a microcosm of the game and how close UVa was to really giving Florida a run for its money.
On the next drive, Virginia faced fourth-and-1 and decided to pass. Perkins hit Hasise Dubois on a shallow crossing route for three yards. It was a great call, one I wished the team could've made on third-and-1 on its initial drive.
Perkins' insane scramble on third-and-8, which garnered him national attention, came on the first play of the second quarter. He definitely should've been sacked, but the magician (as Dubois called him this season) somehow escaped pressure with athleticism and a strong stiff-arm, then tossed the ball into the back of the end zone where Dubois made a catch that almost equaled Perkins' heroics. It was an inexplicable play that Virginia fans got used to seeing from Perkins the past two years, but after it was over, our mouths were still on the floor.
Bryce Perkins is a magician pic.twitter.com/lrN62C2T0Y— Unnecessary Roughness (@UnnecRoughness) December 31, 2019
The Cavaliers' defense stepped up their pressure on the next drive, but couldn't get any help from the close calls department. Linebacker Noah Taylor got a hand on Trask's pass on the first play of the drive. Several times during the game, it seemed like Virginia was going to get a second interception, but just couldn't quite do it.
A huge play occurred with Florida facing first-and-10 at Virginia's 37-yard line. Trask ran the ball and was clobbered by Zandier, linebacker Charles Snowden, and lineman Aaron Faumui. The ball squirted out at the end of the play, and Faumui pounced on it. The call on the field was that Trask was down before the ball came out. The replay showed that it was a very close call, and many UVa fans complained on social media that it should've been Virginia's ball. But the call ultimately stood, one of those plays that was too close to overturn. I think had the original call been that it was a fumble, that would've stood, too. Later, on third-and-goal, Cross deflected a pass in the end zone, so Virginia just gave up a field goal. Still, the drive could've had a better result with that fumble recovery. UVa would've had the ball with the game tied at 14.
The next sequence of drives is what really killed Virginia's chance at the upset and had it playing catch up the rest of the game. The offense went three-and-out, and then the defense could not get off the field when it absolutely should have. Florida was up against a first-and-25 after an offensive pass interference penalty. On second-and-22, Grant, Zandier, and linebacker Matt Gahm made a good tackle on Van Jefferson, who picked up just five yards on a reception. But on third-and-17, a short swing pass to Malik Davis went for eight yards when in reality he should have only gained about one or two yards. Blount was the first to miss a tackle, followed by Taylor before a group of 'Hoos stopped him. The gain made the Gators' fourth down easier to convert, as they only had eight yards to go instead of 10 or more. Swain ran a crossing route in front of Jackson and picked up 11 yards. Later, on third-and-4, Jefferson picked up a first down with another crossing pattern. A play later, Perine recorded his third touchdown on a 10-yard run.
Florida ended the first half up 24-14. It's tough to know which defensive drive was more difficult for UVa to endure. On the first, the Wahoos missed a prime opportunity to pick off the first pass of the game. On the second drive, they just couldn't get off the field. On the third drive, a controversial call didn't go their way. And then on the fourth drive, they gave up a first down after Florida found itself in a second-and-22. If just any one of these situations turned Virginia's way, it would have found itself in a better position at the break.
The third quarter was very frustrating because UVa's defense stepped up and played better, only allowing Florida one field goal, but the offense could not do anything to complement it. Virginia forced Florida to punt two straight times. It was a ripe opportunity to really cut into the Gators' margin, and the Wahoos could not do it.
There were three key plays that did not go UVa's way. The most maddening came on Virginia's second drive of the third quarter. The Cavaliers faced third-and-11 at their own 28 and ran a draw to Joe Reed. He ran really hard but only picked up six yards. That play was run a few times this season and worked really well on the game-winning drive against Florida State -- on first down -- but this was not the time to call it. The team had already had success with the deep ball, yet that was the call? It felt very much like giving up and punting the ball, which is what you do when you're up 14-7 on Duke in the second quarter in October. Not when you have nothing to lose and are down 10 to Florida in the Orange Bowl. It was disappointing in a game in which we knew the coaches needed to be aggressive to win. Most of the time, I liked the way offensive coordinator Robert Anae called the game, but that was probably his worst play.
The two other key plays were bad throws by Perkins on the third drive. UVa had good field position at its own 47 and got down to Florida's 39 on a pass to Jana. Still down just 24-14, UVa had a chance to at least get into field goal range and make it a touchdown game. First-and-10 was a really well-designed play. Perkins faked a handoff to Tualapapa and rolled left. Tight end Tanner Cowley was wide open down the sideline, but Perkins did not get his feet set well and missed him. The ball was underthrown and went to the outside of Cowley. It should've been thrown to his inside. Instead, he had to slow down and twist around to try to make the catch. The poor pass gave the Florida defender time to not only knock it away, but almost intercept it. On second-and-10, Dubois went streaking wide open down the same sideline, and Perkins overthrew him by more than five yards. It's almost like Perkins overcompensated for his underthrow to Cowley. So on two occasions, Virginia was a better throw away from making it 24-21. On third-and-10, Perkins was sacked, so even a field goal attempt was out of the question.
On the ensuing drive, Florida kicked a field goal to make it 27-14, but Virginia shouldn't have even allowed that. On first-and-10 at UVa's 33, Trask passed toward the goal line, and Grant had a really easy chance for his second interception. It was one of those plays that almost made it look like Grant was on offense, not defense. But all he did was deflect the ball. How he dropped that one, but made the earlier interception that was much more difficult, we'll never know.
"It meant the world and not just what we did, but how we did it."— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) December 31, 2019
Thank you, Bryce Perkins (@3_ToDaNeck) for all you have done for our @UVAFootball program!#GoHoos | #TheStandard 🔶🔷 pic.twitter.com/5drAbSeQR0
The quarter ended with a nice play-action pass to Cowley up the seam for 52 yards. Perkins faked a handoff to Tualapapa, and Cowley was wide open. I saw a comment on Twitter that said Cowley seems to have at least one sizable gain each game. That's true, in that he was reliable but also underutilized. I wish Virginia used tight ends more than it does. They often seem to be open. Cowley will graduate, but the team will have Grant Misch and a promising incoming freshman in Joshua Rawlings.
Virginia scored a touchdown to make it 27-21 on a really fun play. From the Florida 7 on third-and-5, Jana and offensive linemen Ryan Swoboda and Dillon Reinkensmeyer split out wide with Reed behind them. Perkins passed to Reed 10 yards behind the first-down marker, but those three guys did an excellent job of blocking, and Reed did the rest. Swoboda was especially effective as he ended up making two key blocks on the play. I also noticed upon rewatching the play that after blocking briefly at the line, Cowley was open in the end zone.
Down just six, the defense broke and gave up its only touchdown of the second half. The following drive got off to a bad start for UVa when Brian Delaney sent the kickoff out of bounds, setting up Florida at the 35. Then on fourth-and-1 at their own 44, the Gators decided to go for it and picked up two yards on an option play with Trask pitching to Perine. Safety Chris Moore was held on the play, but no penalty was called. Even so, Grant had a shot to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage and couldn't. Florida's TD and failed two-point conversion put it up, 33-21.
UVa's next drive was one of its best of the game but was slowed down by unsportsmanlike Florida antics. The Cavaliers were driving to try to make it 33-28 with about five minutes left. Right after a seven-yard carry by Tualapapa put the 'Hoos at UF's 13, Florida defensive back Brad Stewart Jr., who made the tackle, went down with his "injury." We all know what happened next: an interception by safety Kaiir Elam. Did Perkins force an errant pass? Yes, but that doesn't mean Stewart's action didn't stop Virginia's momentum. Florida's players seemed to fake injuries more than once, but I was glad to see UVa fans and nonfans alike call out the Gators for that play in particular. Note: In my quick reaction post on the game, I had written that Elam took the dive as well, but after watching the replay, I noticed it was Stewart, not Elam. That post has been corrected.
Did Mendenhall just kinda roll his eyes at that injury? Anyone catch that on TV? I was like hmmm.... don’t like to speculate but then they showed the injury and it did look a little ehhhh like maybe he just decided to go down. #GoHoos— Aaron Perryman (@hooamp) December 31, 2019
After the pick, the defense still had a chance to pin Florida deep, with the drive starting at the 3-yard line, but it was unable to do so. On the Gators' first play after the turnover, Trask completed a pass for 53 yards to Jefferson. Florida ended up scoring a field goal on the drive to go up 36-21 with 2:32 left. The long play likely didn't have an effect on Virginia losing, as the Wahoos still would've needed a touchdown and an onside kick to have a chance to win had the score remained 33-21, but the chunk play did wipe away any possibility of a Florida turnover or safety near the end zone directly leading to UVa points.
I was very proud of the way the game ended with the guys not going down easily. The chance of a victory was slim now, but the Cavaliers were able to make the final score respectable. On Virginia's final TD drive, Jana made two really nice plays. On the first, he caught a pass over the middle after it was deflected by a defender who was right on his back, and on the second, Perkins launched the pass into traffic way downfield, and Jana went up and got it for a 47-yard gain. Jana finished with seven catches for 126 yards and the team's first TD. UVa will need to find someone to step in next year for the graduating Dubois and Reed, but Jana is ready for his leading role and has been for several games. He finished the season with 73 catches, only four behind Reed and two behind Dubois. Virginia had a very balanced passing attack. Jana was basically a No. 1 since the North Carolina game, when he caught 11 passes.
The job that Coach Hagans has done with this WR core is priceless— Ahmad Hawkins Sr 🤫🤫 (@IAmBallHawk) December 31, 2019
Perkins, Reed, and Dubois capped their careers the right way. Perkins dazzled us one more time with what he made look like a ho-hum escape that he turned into a 10-yard run around the left end. Following the illegal forward pass play to offensive linemen Bobby Haskins, it was third-and-10. Perkins threw to Reed, behind the line, but Reed juked all over the Gators' defense to pick up the first down. And then on second down after a spike, Perkins found Dubois in the back of the end zone for the last TD of the season.
Perkins went 28 of 40 for 323 yards, four touchdowns, and the one pick. Dubois recorded 10 receptions for 83 yards and two scores. Reed compiled seven catches for 52 yards and a TD. Defensively, Zandier led the way with 13 tackles. Snowden had the unit's only sack. Fans have a lot to be proud of not only this season, but in this Orange Bowl effort. That said, the opportunity was there for the Wahoos to really close the 2019 campaign in style, and they just couldn't quite make enough plays. That will be another attainable goal set by the program going forward I'm sure: Win a big bowl game.
With 347 yards tonight, Bryce Perkins broke Shawn Moore's #UVa career record for total offense.— David Teel (@DavidTeelatDP) December 31, 2019
Moore had 7,897 yards in four years.
Perkins 7,910 in two.