By Jeff White (email@example.com)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. –– On a late-December day, as much of the country shivered in the cold, Joe Reed wore a swimsuit and basked in the tropical climate of South Florida while enjoying an ice cream cone. Behind him, teammates played on the sand and in the Atlantic Ocean.
“When I thought about bowl games [growing up], this is what I thought about,” Reed said, smiling. “The events, the atmosphere, the weather. You really can’t beat it.”
This is Reed’s fourth and final season on the University of Virginia football team, which has advanced to a bowl game for the third straight year. The Cavaliers traveled to Annapolis, Md., for the Military Bowl in 2017 and to Charlotte, N.C., for the Belk Bowl in 2018.
They’re playing on a much bigger stage, in much warmer temperatures, this year. At 8 p.m. Monday, No. 24 Virginia (9-4) makes its first appearance in a New Year’s Day Six game, taking on No. 9 Florida (10-2) in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
“This is a testament to how hard we’ve been working and how hard Coach Mendenhall has been working as well,” said Reed, an All-America kick-returner who’s also an exceptional wide receiver.
For anyone familiar with college football, the Orange Bowl “is a big deal, and it’s a big deal for us,” senior defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “It’s a big deal for me. I know the magnitude of this game, and I know the magnitude of our opponent.”
The Wahoos, who defeated another Southeastern Conference team, South Carolina, 28-0 in the Belk Bowl, are in their fourth season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who’s guided the program back to relevance.
Late last month, Virginia beat arch-rival Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003 to clinch the Coastal Division title. The Cavaliers crashed back to earth the next weekend, losing 62-17 to No. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game, but they still have an opportunity to finish with 10 wins for only the second time in program history.
“No matter what happens,” Hanback said, “we’ve had a great season … But we’re not looking at that like that’s enough.”
Injuries have ravaged the Cavaliers on defense, sidelining Bryce Hall, Jordan Mack, Rob Snyder, Brenton Nelson and Darrius Bratton, among others. Of the players who’ll take the field on defense against Florida, Hanback is the only one who’ll exhaust his college eligibility this year.
The offense will have more turnover, losing such mainstays as wideouts Reed and Hasise Dubois, tight end Tanner Cowley and quarterback Bryce Perkins.
Cowley enrolled at UVA in 2015, Reed and Dubois a year later. Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, arrived in Charlottesville in January 2018 after spending the 2017 season at a junior college in Arizona. He’ll leave as one of the most influential players in program history.
As a junior, Perkins set a school record with 3,603 yards of total offense, a mark he’s eclipsed this year. He enters the Orange Bowl with 3,215 yards (and 18 touchdowns) passing and 745 yards (and 11 TDs) rushing.
A talented dual-threat quarterback, Mendenhall said, gives any team “a chance, regardless of what your entire roster looks like … And so the right quarterback with the right team, Bryce Perkins in our case, can accelerate a program while the rest of the roster is being built.”
The Cavaliers’ defense has a special appreciation for Perkins’ talents, having faced him in practice and watched him in games.
“Whenever any kind of play breaks down, there’s no one open, someone misses a block, Bryce just has that X-factor where he can change a play with just one move,” outside linebacker Charles Snowden said.
Florida’s defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, said he’s been impressed with Perkins’ improvement over the course of the season. Perkins suffered a knee injury in early August that hindered him for part of the regular season, but he’s shown no ill effects in recent games.
“He creates an 11-on-11 game because of the style in which they play,” said Grantham, who played and coached at Virginia Tech, “[and] what that does is creates an extra gap defensively for you to fill, because if the quarterback is a non-runner, then it’s really 11-on-10 and you can play with an extra guy in coverage and things like that. Whereas when it’s 11-on-11, you have an extra gap to fill so you’ve got to play it a little differently.”
Against Perkins, Florida head coach Dan Mullen said, “You’ve got to be sound. You’ve got to be disciplined. You’ve got to understand he’s going to make plays, and you just have to limit the amount that he can make.”
In Reed, Dubois, Cowley and wideouts Terrell Jana and Billy Kemp IV, Perkins has talented targets in the passing game, and the line’s improvement has resulted in increased production for the offense.
“Our O-line stepped up and gave Bryce time, and once you give Bryce time the team clicks,” Dubois said. “When he’s at his best, it’s basically a hassle to stop the offense.”
In the ACC championship game, UVA totaled 387 yards, by far the most Clemson had allowed all season, and converted 10 of 18 third-down opportunities. The Cavaliers’ defense, however, broke down repeatedly, missing tackles and letting Clemson receivers run free in the secondary.
“Even though that was not a good experience, [if] you take the things that you learn, you can make that a positive experience,” Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell said.
For the Hoos, reviewing videotape of the ACC championship game was not a fun experience, Snowden said, but they “had to learn from it. Part of it was an Xs and Os thing and another part of it was just pride, knowing that’s not who we are as a team, that’s not what we want to put on film, that’s not how we want to end our season. We know we’re a lot better than that. So to go out and compete on this stage against a really good team again, it’s just something we’re looking forward to, to get that Clemson taste out of our mouth.”
Hanback said the keys for UVA’s defense are “mindset and execution … really just focusing on doing your 1/11th, your one job, your one assignment for whatever position you’re playing. And for us to be successful, each guy, all 11 guys have to do their job and not be focusing on anything else. We think if we do that, we’ll be successful.”
Snowden said: “Everyone has got to do their 1/11th. Don’t try to do too much. Just because it’s a big stage, don’t try to be the star. Just make plays within your job and execute to the best of your ability.”
If not as dominant as Clemson’s offense, Florida’s attack is still formidable. Quarterback Kyle Trask has thrown 24 touchdown passes and only six interceptions, and eight Gators have at least 20 receptions apiece.
“It’ll be a challenge for us and will require a lot of innovation,” Mendenhall said, “a lot of coaching on our part to try to neutralize that, but that’s one of our biggest tests.”
HEIR APPARENT: Perkins’ illustrious college career will end late Monday night, after which he’ll focus on earning a spot on an NFL roster. Dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson’s success with the Baltimore Ravens has shown that “there’s room and there’s a place for my style of play,” Perkins said. “It’s going to give a lot of guys chances, and I feel like I fit right into that.”
Perkins said his primary concern this month, however, has been the Orange Bowl “and all the goals that I have in college before I even think about worrying about the NFL.”
When Perkins leaves, Brennan Armstrong takes over as the Cavaliers’ No. 1 quarterback. A 6-2, 220-pound left-hander from Shelby, Ohio, Armstrong will have three seasons of eligibility left, starting in 2020.
“That’s been my mindset since I first got here,” said Armstrong, who like Perkins enrolled at UVA in January 2018. “Once I figured out Bryce was going to be the starter for us, then I was just preparing like I was going to be the next guy the whole time. “
Armstrong is a powerful runner whom Mendenhall compared to one of the quarterbacks he coached at BYU, from which he came to UVA after the 2015 season.
“Brennan is not Bryce in terms of some of the dynamic [runs],” Mendenhall said, “but he does run in a manner that is a little bit more Taysom Hill-like, and Taysom plays a lot of different positions for the [New Orleans] Saints. He’s part linebacker, part safety, part cornerback, part kick returner, part whatever. Brennan is a little bit more like that, so we’ll just tailor the offense more in relation to that style than what Bryce is currently doing.”
Armstrong appeared in four games as a true freshman in 2018 but, under the new NCAA rules, was able to retain that season of eligibility. He’s played in six games this season, completing 15 of 20 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions. He’s carried seven times for 19 yards.
The Cavaliers’ coaches came into the season hoping to use Armstrong more, but he missed four games with turf toe.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was until it actually happened,” Armstrong recalled Saturday. “I got it, and I was like, ‘Well, I can’t run right now.’ It’s a lot worse than what I thought it was going to be, but I’m through it. It healed fine.”