By Jeff White (email@example.com)
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. –– Tears fell in the home locker room at Hard Rock Stadium late Monday night as reality set in for the University of Virginia football team. Not only was the Cavaliers’ breakthrough season over, so too were the college careers of a senior class led by quarterback Bryce Perkins, wide receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois, tight end Tanner Cowley, defensive lineman Eli Hanback, linebacker Jordan Mack and cornerback Bryce Hall.
With the exception of Perkins, who arrived in January 2018, that group has been with head coach Bronco Mendenhall for all four of his seasons at Virginia. Its members’ impact can’t be overstated.
“I consider them a legacy class in terms of establishing what UVA football really is,” Mendenhall said.
The class persevered through trying times, most notably in 2016, when the Wahoos posted a 2-10 record. But the Hoos improved to 6-7 in 2017, when they advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2011, and finished 8-5 in 2018 after defeating South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
No. 24 UVA finished 9-5 this year after losing 36-28 to No. 9 Florida in the Orange Bowl on Monday night.
“You look at a program on the rise,” Florida head coach Dan Mullen said. “You see how tough, how they compete, how they play hard, play hard for four quarters in everything that they do, and congratulate them on such a great year.”
Among the 2019 highlights: The Hoos reclaimed the Commonwealth Cup from Virginia Tech, which had won 15 straight in the series; captured their first Coastal Division title; and won nine regular-season games for the first time since 2007.
“I’m really proud of my team, the culture that we’ve established, the competitive spirit, the intensity and the camaraderie that’s displayed from beginning to end,” Mendenhall said. “We’re on a mission to just simply establish that you can have world-class academics and be at the top tier of college football, as well. That’s what’s happening at the University of Virginia. We were a few plays short today in our execution to win the game, but it was not because of a lack of belief or confidence or ability.”
In its first-ever appearance in the ACC championship game, Virginia suffered a humbling loss, falling 62-17 to No. 3 Clemson on Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C. The Orange Bowl produced no such mismatch.
Not until the Gators (11-2) recovered an onside kick with 38 seconds left – after Perkins’ fourth touchdown pass and junior Brian Delaney’s PAT made it an eight-point game –– was the outcome settled Monday night.
“I’m not into moral victories, because we lost the game, but I’m proud of these guys, proud of how we worked, and I’m proud of just the culture we set and the standard,” Perkins said. “When I first got here [the team’s motto was] New Standard, but now it’s The Standard for the guys coming up, and this program is transcending, and next year these guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with. You could kind of see a glimpse of it today. We don’t take losing lightly, so we’re definitely going to learn from it, and I’m proud to see what the future holds.”
Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, will be remembered as a transformative figure in the UVA program. In only two seasons, he set the school record for career total offense, with 7,910 yards, eclipsing the mark set by quarterback Shawn Moore (1987-90).
In his final game as a Cavalier, Perkins completed 28 of 40 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception.
“I continue to be amazed and impressed by Bryce Perkins,” Mendenhall said.
The Gators limited Perkins’ effectiveness as a runner, but he has three superlative receivers in Dubois, Reed and junior Terrell Jana, and each sparkled Monday night. Dubois, perhaps the nation’s most sure-handed receiver, caught 10 passes for 83 yards and two TDs, the first of which came on a spectacular leaping grab in the back of the end zone.
Reed had seven receptions for 52 yards and one touchdown, and Jana caught seven passes for 126 yards and another TD. Cowley had three receptions for 60 yards on a night when Virginia rushed for only 52 yards.
Perkins’ four TD passes were a record for a Cavalier in a bowl game.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Jana said. “Everyone knows what he does as a player, but I think his biggest quality is the type of person he is, and I was honored to be beside him in the locker room every single day, not just on Saturdays. He was an amazing addition to this team and this program.”
Perkins, who suffered a broken neck at Arizona State, spent the 2017 season at a junior college in Arizona before transferring to Virginia, where the coaching staff wanted to build the offense around a dual-threat quarterback.
In 2016 and ’17, Mendenhall said, UVA’s coaches “were working so hard on just establishing what a culture of excellence looks like and raising expectations and raising hopes and establishing belief, and it became really clear after those two years that we needed a dynamic player and person to lead our team offensively and from the quarterback position.
“Bryce is the exact person we were hopeful to have lead our program, and I’m talking person first and then player second. It was and is the perfect fit. I couldn’t have hoped for anything else. I wouldn’t have wanted anything else or anybody else. I’m just grateful.”
So is Perkins. Asked Monday night about his experience at UVA, he said, “I was happy, and I am happy, that Coach came all the way out to Arizona and recruited me. I didn’t know what kind of culture I was getting into when the first call came, but to come out here with guys like [Dubois] and all the things that we’ve done together and the relationships that we’ve built, and you can see it on the field just how hard we fight for each other.”
Injuries have depleted the Cavaliers in the secondary and at inside linebacker –– two of their captains, Hall and Mack, were among the players who didn’t suit up Monday night –– and the Gators totaled 549 yards. Forty seconds into the first meeting between these teams since 1959, Florida led 7-0, thanks to tailback Lamicale Perine’s 61-yard touchdown run.
By halftime, Perine had three TDs, the Gators had 342 yards, and Virginia trailed 24-14. Time and again in the first two quarters, the Cavaliers struggled to deal with Florida’s speed.
“We slipped quite a bit early,” Mendenhall said. “Those aren’t excuses. We had unblocked players that missed tackles, and credit athletic players from Florida for making us miss.”
Finally, around the 8:30 mark of the third quarter, the Hoos forced Florida’s first punt. “We settled in over time,” Mendenhall said, “but we did give up some early scores before we did settle in, and sometimes that just happens with a good opponent after you haven’t played for a couple weeks.”
The Gators were 2 for 2 on fourth down. Late in the first quarter, quarterback Kyle Trask completed an 11-yard pass on fourth-and-8 from the UVA 35. Four plays later, Perine’s third TD made it 24-14.
Then, early in the fourth quarter, after Reed’s touchdown cut Virginia’s deficit to six, the Gators faced fourth-and-1 from their 44-yard line. Perine gained two yards on an option pitch, extending a drive that ended with Trask’s one-yard touchdown run.
Overall, though, the effort of Virginia’s defensive players was admirable, Mendenhall said. “I think they hung in very well, and I think especially in the second half they played as we would have hoped they played. Our two defensive captains certainly got hurt. We lost [starting safety] Brenton Nelson along the way also, and others. But that’s college football. The defensive unit today gave us a great chance all the way to an onside kick to win the game. We didn’t, so it wasn’t quite enough, but I was proud of their effort.”
Hanback said: “We don’t want to make any excuses. Obviously there’s going to be a learning curve when the young guys come in, but we did the best we can in dealing with it, and those guys got a lot of good experience for next year.”
Junior inside linebacker Zane Zandier finished with a game-high 13 tackles, and sophomore outside linebacker Noah Taylor seemed to be everywhere on the field. Taylor made five tackles, two of them for loss, broke up two passes, and foiled Florida’s two-point conversion attempt to keep the score 33-21 with 9:33 to play.
Junior cornerback Nick Grant set up Virginia’s first touchdown with a diving interception at the Florida 34-yard line. On the next play, Perkins passed to Jana for a touchdown.
Coming off their one-sided loss to Clemson, which will play LSU for the national title next month, the Cavaliers wanted to redeem themselves in the Orange Bowl. They walked off the field disappointed but with their heads high.
“I’m very proud of the guys,” Dubois said. “I feel as though they played their hearts out, everybody, seniors all the way down to the freshmen that got into the game.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Of the Cavaliers who played on defense Monday, only Hanback has exhausted his college eligibility. Virginia will have more to replace on offense, with Perkins, Dubois, Reed and Cowley leaving, but the entire line will be back, as will the top five running backs. Delaney and punter Nash Griffin also are expected back in 2020.
“I’m excited for the future,” junior safety Joey Blount said. “This is not exactly how we wanted it to end, but this is a good platform for us to really step up our game.”
SOUND BITES: Virginia, making its first appearance in a New Year’s Day Six bowl game, was seeking the second 10-win season in program history. Among the postgame comments:
• Mendenhall on moving forward without UVA’s seniors, including Perkins and Dubois, who joined him at the postgame press conference: “It is always difficult to imagine your team without the seniors or without these two guys. But it is possible, and the example and … the mark they’ve set is exactly the mark that we need to squeeze even more air out of this program.”
• Mendenhall on a positive development for the offense: “Our offensive line grew and developed I think at a remarkable level, with a lot of work, from being poor to average to being good, even though Florida made us pay a few times today, and that whole group comes back.”
• Hanback, a four-year starter, on his emotions after his final game as a Cavalier: “I came in here and I got my tears out. I gave my heart to this program and to this team, and since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a part of this program. I’ve been blessed with that opportunity. I hope I left a lasting legacy for the guys behind me and they just continue to believe and buy into the culture.”
• Sophomore tackle Bobby Haskins on the offensive line’s potential: “Any time you bring everybody back, it’s a great launching point for the rest of the offense and the next season. So we’ll definitely have high expectations next year and we’ll look to pick up where we left off this year.”
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR: The Cavaliers open the 2020 season on Labor Day against another SEC power. In the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, UVA takes on Georgia on Monday, Sept. 7, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
In a series that began in 1897, Georgia holds a 9-7-3 lead. In the teams’ most recent meeting, on Dec. 24, 2000, the Bulldogs defeated the Cavaliers 37-14 in the Jeep O’ahu Bowl in Hawaii. That was George Welsh’s final game as Virginia’s head coach.