By Tom D’Angelo/Palm Beach Post
MIAMI GARDENS – Dan Mullen walked into his postgame news conference after tossing around oranges following his team’s Orange Bowl victory and realized the day had morphed from Monday into Tuesday.
He let out a sigh.
“After midnight,” he said. “Good thing we’re in Miami. Party all night.”
Now, the chance the Florida coach headed for South Beach after leaving Hard Rock Stadium with a 36-28 victory over pesky Virginia is about as likely as LSU and Clemson playing to a scoreless tie after regulation in the national championship game.
But that’s this year. A year from now, when Florida’s season concludes, Mullen just might be partying all night long in the 305.
The Florida Gators concluded their most successful season in the last decade with a victory in the Orange Bowl on Monday.
If they can conclude next year with a victory in the same stadium, but different game, then it will be historic.
The Gators (11-2) were pushed by Virginia, sealing their second win in a New Year’s Six bowl in the last two years by recovering an on-side kick with 38 seconds to play.
Now, after they finish in the top 10 for the second consecutive season (the Gators were No. 6 in the AP poll entering bowl season) they must raise the bar in 2020.
Returning to South Florida to play the national championship game.
“I’m looking at what they’ve got coming back, they can do more,” said senior linebacker Jonathan Greenard. “This is only just the beginning, honestly. Last year was a little taste of it. We keep building, we got 11 wins, which is really difficult. Next year, they are just going to capitalize off of that.
“National Championship in my eyes.”
Florida ends the season with its most victories since 2011 and is guaranteed its highest post-season ranking since finished No. 3 in 2009.
Mullen, the man who has turned this from a four-win disappointment into a an 11-win contender, already is challenging a team that returns 12 starters and all but 11 players from the two-deep depth chart.
“January 6th we have a team meeting and that 2020 team will be born,” Mullen said. “And the mental toughness that it takes to come in day after day, work, push, get yourself better. …
“We have to do more than we did this year, get better than we were this year. You look at the two games we lost this year, close games, that we’re battling, battling, battling, that margin for error is really tiny in those games, it’s one or two plays can make a difference.”
Florida appears on the right track, but the climb becomes increasingly more difficult as it gets closer to the top. Mullen’s message at that meeting and during the spring and summer and start of fall practice will be that the road is paved.
“You look at 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,” Mullen said. “You’re looking at teams … 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.”
Which is why Mullen and his team did not go through the motions during the week or treat this game as if it were some sort of punishment for not making the playoffs. This was important to them, not just for a successful end to 2019 but to build momentum to 2020.
“I think this win is huge for this program,” said junior quarterback Kyle Trask who will return for his fifth season in 2020.
Florida accomplished all that by unleashing a running game on Virginia it has been searching for all season. The Gators entered averaging 120.2 yards per game, 119th nationally, and had half of that on the third play of the game, a 61-yard touchdown run by the game’s MVP, Lamical Perine.
The Gators kept trying to get Trask untracked. He started slow, and although he never really found a rhythm, he was good enough, completing 24 of 39 passes for 305 yards and one touchdown.
But the Gators knew they could count on Perine, who ran for 138 yards on 13 carries and scored three times; two rushing and one receiving. Mullen said the running game never really became a factor this year because teams were mostly focused on stopping the run against them. But in Virginia, they faced a team “that decided they were going to try to stop the pass and drop a lot of guys into coverage.”
Florida rushed for 244 yards. Its previous high on the ground was 231 against Tennessee-Martin, 154 against a real team (South Carolina).
Still, this game was in doubt until the end, with Virginia (9-5) trying to prove it belonged in the game when everybody outside the ACC thought otherwise.
The key defensive play was turned in by freshman Kaiir Elam, the former Benjamin High standout. Elam, making his fifth start, was responsible for Bryce Perkins’ lone interception (against four touchdown passes) on the Gators 3-yard line with about five minutes to play and Florida ahead by 12.
Elam now knows what is now expected of this team.
“Next year I don’t expect anything less than a national championship,” he said. “That’s just me. I feel like we just need to keep improving, don’t take any steps back, and we’ll be there.”