Florida vs. Virginia score, takeaways: Gators win 11th game in back-and-forth Orange Bowl 2019

By Adam Silverstein
December 31, 2019
Florida vs. Virginia score, takeaways: Gators win 11th game in back-and-forth Orange Bowl 2019

Image Credit: GatorsFB / Twitter

The 2019 Orange Bowl may not have been the game that fans of the No. 9 Florida Gators were expecting, but the result is exactly what they wanted. Florida prevailed 36-28 over the No. 24 Virginia Cavaliers in a fun back-and-forth affair that the Gators never trailed despite occasionally looking vulnerable.

Florida ultimately got the job done Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium, delivering the partisan crowd a victory in a hard-fought game with plenty of offense despite a somewhat-lacking defensive effort. The Gators improved to 4-0 all-time in Orange Bowls and won 11 games in a season for the first time since 2012 and just the eighth time in program history.

What went down on Monday night in Miami Gardens, Florida? Let’s take a look at UF’s victory, what it meant in the context of the Orange Bowl and how it sets the program up going forward.

1. Take a moment to appreciate the accomplishment: Before we get into what went right and wrong for the Gators against a Wahoos team that was somewhat disrespected entering the game, it’s worth pausing and recognizing the final result. Florida has gone 21-5 in two seasons under head coach Dan Mullen, second only to Urban Meyer (who inherited a far more talented team). The Gators also won consecutive BCS/New Year’s Six bowls for the first time in a decade (2008-09) and made Mullen the first coach in history to accomplish that feat in his first two years leading a program. Florida will also finish in the top 10 of the year-end polls in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008-09.

The Gators improved to 5-3 against ranked opponents under Mullen and have now scored 106 offensive touchdowns in his 26 games after scoring just 93 in 38 games from 2015-17. Florida scored 24+ points in 11 of 13 games this season, beat every nonconference team it faced and only suffered losses to a pair of top-five teams away from home. In other words, the Gators had a damn good season and have had two fantastic years under Mullen considering where this team stood when he took over the program.

“I’m really proud of our players. Just under a year ago, this team was born, and we talked about going from four wins to 10 wins was special, but to go from 10 wins to 11 is going to be a lot harder, and those guys bought into it. They started working last January, and they worked, they grinded all season long in everything that they did,” Mullen said after the game.

“… They’ve bought in. Back-to-back 10-win seasons, back-to-back top-10 teams, back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl victories. They’ve bought in, and they’ve restored that Gator standard, and they get to walk out the door knowing they’ve restored the Gator standard to what it is, building that foundation of a team that expects to … go win an SEC and a national championship.”

2. What went right: Florida found a running game. Say what you will about the offensive line all season, but it and the pass catchers clearly made a concerted effort to improve their blocking. Senior running back Lamical Perine took advantage, rumbling for a career-high 138 yards as the Gators notched a season-high 244 yards rushing. After not being utilized on Senior Night against Florida State last month, Perine was a bell cow, getting 18 total touches for 181 yards and a career-high three total touchdowns to win the Orange Bowl’s Most Valuable Player award.

Mullen may have made a couple of questionable play calls — he faces those criticisms every game as most take for granted how many he gets right — but Florida was dynamic offensively. The 549 yards of total offense were the most against a team above .500 in two years under Mullen. Florida went 6-for-13 on third down and 2-for-2 on fourth down. Mullen also knew when to settle for field goals, giving sophomore Evan McPherson the opportunity to go 3-for-3 with a long of 49. Each of those mattered, and considering the Gators’ eight-point victory, going 4-for-4 in red zone opportunities was important as well. Considering its starting quarterback did not have his best game, Florida still found a way to post 36 points and answer nearly every score late in the game.

While the defense was a sore spot (see below), the Gators once again had a bowl game in which a future star defensive back stood out as a true freshman. Kaiir Elam had an interception, pass breakup and two solo tackles in the game, earning praise after the contest. “We have some DBs that left to go to the NFL and a couple guys graduating, so we’re expecting him to carry on that tradition of being DBU here and having one of the best secondaries in the country,” Mullen said.

3. What went wrong: If your measure of success was the Gators covering the closing 15-point spread, which indicated how heavy of a favorite they were in the game, than you were certainly disappointed. But a postseason game one month removed from the season against a head coach like Bronco Mendenhall and dynamic playmaker like quarterback Bryce Perkins is bound to be filled with surprises. Florida’s game plan was to force Perkins, who entered the game with an 18-11 touchdown-interception ratio, to beat its defense with his arm and not his legs (he was Virginia’s leading rusher with 102 more carries than the starting running back). Mendenhall and the Wahoos recognized that and did whatever they could to make the Gators defense pay.

Florida succeeded in stopping Perkins on the ground (14 carries, 24 yards), but the senior signal caller absolutely tore through the Gators secondary, completing 28-of-40 passes for 323 yards and a career-high four passing touchdowns with a late interception. Perkins made throws on the run and into tight coverage; he also had two wide receivers make incredible TD catches in the first quarter. More importantly, though, he had wide-open pass catchers in the fourth quarter after it looked like Florida’s defense had adjusted in the first 15 minutes out of halftime. While the Gators and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham definitely have some answers to provide, sometimes great players just have great games.

More concerning was the play of Florida redshirt junior quarterback Kyle Trask, who looked off all night. Trask (305 yards passing, 37 yards rushing) did make his fair share of big plays and scored two touchdowns in the game, but he also missed a significant number of open receivers, going 24 of 39 with an interception and a would-be fumble that was not called on replay review. He left at least 7-11 points on the field, not to mention a number of first downs. It was particularly curious that redshirt freshman QB Emory Jones only got four snaps and did not attempt a pass.

Also, punting was a major problem. In his final game, redshirt senior Tommy Townsend booted two balls for just 66 combined yards (38, 28). This gave the Hoos tremendous field position on two separate occasions, though this was during that aforementioned third quarter when the defense stepped up in a major way.

4. Odds and ends: Lost among the big stat lines was Gators redshirt senior WR Van Jefferson, who caught eight passes for a career-high 129 yards … Florida beat three ACC teams in a single season for the first time in program history and faced three such teams for just the second time (1975, 1-2) … the Gators improved to 3-1 all-time in Hard Rock Stadium … Mullen is now 7-2 in bowl games as a coach, 2-0 at UF … under Mullen, Florida is now 15-0 when scoring first, 17-0 when leading after the third quarter, 6-1 in games decided by fewer than 10 points and 17-0 when outrushing its opponent … UF has scored in 398 consecutive games, an NCAA record

5. What this means for 2020: Mullen and the Gators spoke all week about how a victory in the Orange Bowl would propel the team ahead for next season, just as the win over Michigan did for Florida ahead of the 2019 campaign. And that may well be true. But despite all the positives on Monday night, the realization had to have struck that this defense — the same one that gave up a record 323 yards passing under Mullen on Monday — is losing a ton of veteran talent entering 2020. For years since Meyer’s departure, it was a dynamic offense holding the Gators back from being championship-caliber. That appears to have been fixed. Now, Florida has a defense that was solid most of the year but faltered in its three biggest games. There is going to be a lot of pressure on Grantham in the offseason.

“If you want to be able to be a championship program, you’ve got to win consistently,” Mullen said. “You don’t see teams — you look at the [College Football] Playoff teams, the guys that made the playoffs this year, they’re not teams that just came out of nowhere and hadn’t been winning and finally won. You’re looking at teams — I think all of them were in New Year’s Six bowl games last year. You’ve got to be a consistent winner to go be a championship program, and I think the guys here in our program are helping us build that.”

Trask, Perine and Jefferson all agreed with Mullen’s overall evaluation, but Greenard was even more optimistic than his other standout teammates.

“This is only just the beginning of it, honestly,” he said. “Last year was a little taste of it. We keep building, we got 11 wins, which is really difficult. So next year — a couple plays this year and we would’ve been right where we wanted — they are just going to capitalize off of that, understand where we were this past year, and national championship in my eyes, so we’ve got that in our eyes now.”

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