No. 24 Virginia vs. No. 9 Florida: Orange Bowl breakdown

The Cavaliers look to upset the Gators in their first-ever Orange Bowl appearance

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Senior wide receiver Joe Reed will be back in action against Florida in the Orange Bowl.

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

After a successful season that saw Virginia beat rival Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003 and win the ACC Coastal division title for the first time in program history, the No. 24 Cavaliers (9-4, 6-2 ACC) will look to finish the season on a high note. They play against Florida in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Dec. 30.

It is Virginia’s first-ever appearance in the Orange Bowl, and will mark the No. 9 Gators’ (10-2, 6-2 SEC) fourth appearance overall. Florida is undefeated in its previous three appearances in the Orange Bowl and comes into the game heavily favored over Virginia. The two teams have played just once before — Florida won the only meeting in 1959.

Led by second-year Coach Dan Mullen, the Gators possess a dynamic defense ranked in the top 10 in the nation in points allowed per game — just 14.4 — and a dangerous passing attack with multiple elite receivers. Florida’s only losses this season came against No. 1 LSU and No. 5 Georgia.

Playing against an SEC giant will be no small task for Virginia. The Cavaliers, however, did handily beat an SEC team last year in their bowl game. Virginia crushed South Carolina 28-0 to win the Belk Bowl.

This year, the Cavaliers are matched up against a very talented Florida team with experience winning on this stage. Last year, the Gators dominated Michigan 41-15 to win the Peach Bowl, another New Year’s Six bowl game.

Virginia will need to be at its best to beat Florida under the lights at Hard Rock Stadium. The Cavaliers must improve from their performance against Clemson in the ACC Championship game to stand a chance. Getting key players healthy — like senior linebacker Jordan Mack and senior wide receiver Joe Reed, both of whom featured on All-ACC teams — will help. Having extra time to prep for a challenging opponent will too, which Virginia certainly did not have against Clemson. The game presents a great opportunity for Virginia football to set yet another standard under Coach Bronco Mendenhall and pick up 10 wins for just the second time in program history.

Key battle: Virginia’s offensive line vs. Florida’s pass rush

Virginia’s offensive line has been crucial in the Cavaliers’ offensive explosion over the latter half of the season. Ranked No. 108 in the country in total offense after losing to Louisville, the Cavaliers climbed up to No. 80 in the nation in the five games since. Virginia scored 30 or more points in all four of its wins to end the regular season and posted 387 total yards against Clemson, the nation’s best defense allowing just 244.7 yards per game.

Mendenhall challenged the offensive line to improve — particularly after they allowed eight sacks against Notre Dame — and the players have responded. Sophomore offensive tackle Bobby Haskins, sophomore offensive tackle Ryan Nelson, sophomore center Olusegun Oluwatimi, junior offensive tackle Chris Glaser and junior offensive guard Dillon Reinkensmeyer have all improved their play. The development of Haskins at left tackle has been particularly important for the Cavaliers. The line’s stellar play has played a role in senior quarterback Bryce Perkins’ rise over the second half of the season as both a passer and rusher.

Florida will be a daunting opponent for Virginia’s improved line. The Gators have 46 sacks on the season, good for fourth in the country. Graduate transfer outside linebacker Jonathan Greenard leads the way with 8.5 sacks this season, tied for fourth in the nation among linebackers. Together with Greenard, senior defensive end Jabari Zuniga — who has only featured in five games this season — looks poised to play in the Orange Bowl, and his quickness off the ball will make blocking a tough task for Virginia’s line. The duo was on the field together for the entire Miami game and combined for three sacks, five tackles for loss and 15 quarterback pressures. Against Florida’s lethal pass rush, the offensive line will be crucial in giving Perkins the time and space to ignite Virginia’s offense.

X-factor: Senior wide receiver Joe Reed

Reed — named a Walter Camp First-Team All-American kickoff returner — will return to action in the Orange Bowl after missing the ACC Championship game with a minor hip injury. Reed leads the nation with a kickoff return average of just under 35 yards this season. His 3,010 career kickoff return yards and five career kickoff return touchdowns are both Virginia football records. Reed’s explosiveness makes him a threat to take the ball to the house, regardless of how deep in the end zone it is kicked.

Reed is also a talented wide receiver and is adept at using his speed to create separation from opposing defensive backs. He leads the team with 70 receptions and six receiving touchdowns, and his 627 receiving yards are a career-high.

Together with junior wide receiver Terrell Jana and senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois, Reed makes up an elite receiving corps trio. Perkins and the passing game will be key in defeating Florida, and Reed’s game-changing abilities will be on full display. Look for the All-American to make some electrifying plays in his last game in a Virginia uniform.

Pathway to victory: Limit big passing plays, let Perkins loose in final game

The passing game will be key in the Orange Bowl, with both offenses struggling to run the football. Virginia is ranked No. 113 in the nation in rushing offense — largely due to Perkins’ abilities to run the football — and Florida is ranked No. 122. However, in passing offense, Florida is ranked No. 17 in the nation and Virginia is ranked No. 36. Both quarterbacks are talented — Perkins and Florida junior quarterback Kyle Trask, who replaced junior quarterback Feleipe Franks as the starter after his ankle injury against Kentucky — and have stellar, experienced receiving corps.

On the defensive end, Virginia’s depleted secondary will need to work to limit big passing plays. Florida has 32 receiving touchdowns caught by 10 different receivers. Trask has a plethora of options at his disposal, though sophomore tight end Kyle Pitts, senior wide receiver Van Jefferson, senior wide receiver Freddie Swain and junior wide receiver Trevon Grimes stand out — all four have at least 30 receptions, 480 yards receiving and three touchdowns. In total, the Gators have six players with 300 or more receiving yards, while Virginia has just three.

Florida’s receivers have significant big play potential, with five players having receptions for 65 yards or more. Big passing plays hurt Virginia against Clemson. The Tigers had three receptions that went for at least 50 yards, and the Cavaliers cannot afford to give up the same amount of big plays to Florida. Junior cornerback Nick Grant and sophomore cornerback Heskin Smith will have to step up in coverage against the Gators’ talented, athletic and experienced receivers to give Virginia a chance to win.

On offense, Perkins is the key for Virginia. In addition to better line play, offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s willingness to open up the playbook for Perkins in recent weeks has contributed to the Cavaliers’ offensive success. Virginia’s ‘Thorterback’ has been dynamic as both a runner and passer in the latter half of the season. Perkins led Virginia to its first-ever Coastal title and its first victory over Virginia Tech in 15 seasons. He will be the man to engineer an upset over Florida. In his final game in a Virginia uniform, Perkins must be given a chance to play to the full extent of his abilities.

Bottom line: A potential statement win for the program

Mendenhall has emphasized the constant improvement of Virginia football since he was hired as head coach in December 2015. The Cavaliers’ record has improved in every season since 2016. Virginia has achieved landmarks towards becoming a great football program in every season since 2016. In 2017, Virginia qualified for its first bowl game since 2011. In 2018, Virginia won its first bowl game since 2005. This year, Virginia beat Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003.

A win against Florida would be another landmark achievement for Virginia and for Mendenhall’s program building. The Cavaliers have a chance to make a national statement about the progress of their football program in Miami.

Kickoff is at 8 p.m. Monday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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