MIAMI GARDENS — In the packed and steamy Florida locker room, the music was turned up to 11, as in 11 wins. Tight end Kyle Pitts made sure to get all of the receivers to sign the number on the back of his grimy jersey and other players followed suit.
This was a joyous bunch of Gators who celebrated another New Year’s Six bowl win with the enthusiasm of a team that was win-starved instead of one that has 21 Ws in the last two seasons.
Earlier on the podium, Dan Mullen tossed oranges to players and support staff and anybody else on the field who wanted one. Most of the players wasted little time to rip the skin off and consume the oranges as if they hadn’t eaten during the whole week down here.
Van Jefferson was taking the scene in with a huge smile on his face, his college career complete and satisfying.
“I ate mine,” he said.
Jefferson made one of the biggest plays in a game full of them, a 53-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter after a Kaiir Elam interception with Florida backed up to its own 3-yard line.
The play was a choice for Kyke Trask, run it or throw it if the defense played soft.
“I knew he was going to throw it as soon as (the defensive back) backed down,” Jefferson said.
It set up a big field goal by Evan McPherson and, even though things got a little dicey late, that play was an illustration of A) the trust Mullen has in his quarterback; and B) the confidence Trask has to make that decision.
“We had a pass and a run and if they played off we were going to take advantage of it,” Trask said.
Earlier, on a crucial fourth-down play in Florida territory, Trask had options as well and chose the wide play that barely got the first down.
“You have to be prepared for those situations,” Mullen said. “Those are the key moments in the game and he knows what we want to run with the different looks.”
The fairy tale just keeps going for Trask. He wasn’t always sharp in this Orange Bowl and had several passes batted down. And he still threw for more than 300 yards against a team that was trying to take away the pass.
“And here we are winning the Orange Bowl,” he said.
Because Florida had to be efficient offensively while its defense picked a strange time to leak oil. The Gators, as Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said, played “conservatively the entire game.”
Obviously, Todd Grantham didn’t feel confident with CJ Henderson not playing and it didn’t bolster his confidence to see Trey Dean get beat for an early touchdown.
But with Florida playing soft on defense, the Gator offense had to have answers.
They had enough, thanks in part to a special game from the MVP Lamical Perine.
“No better feeling,” he said on the field after the game. I just knew it was my last game and I wanted to go out with a bang. It felt good, like everything in the world.”
On the podium, Perine lifted the MVP trophy high.
“It was heavy,” he said.
On the field, his quarterback was gushing.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Trask said. “He works his tail off every day, doesn’t take a play off.”
Nobody could take a play off Monday night because Virginia came to play. The Cavs had been hearing all week about how they were expected to roll over for the mighty Gators the same way they did against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
They kept hearing how Florida would have the fans (and the Gators did). They kept hearing all of the SEC-ACC stuff and the spread and that nobody gave them a chance.
But that was a well-coached team we saw in the orange jerseys. Virginia had only three penalties the entire game. Two were on special teams and the last was a great trick play that was called back because Bryce Perkins just barely threw the ball forward instead of backward.
My point is simply this — Florida had to be balanced Monday night. Hey couldn’t win just passing the ball, especially the way Virginia was defending the Gators.
“We finally found a team that wanted to stop the pass,” Mullen said. “A lot of times this year, the teams have focused on stopping our run and we haven’t been great running the ball.
“We have a four senior wideouts. At halftime, they’re looking at me, and they’re like, ‘Man, coach, like this is it. This is our final game, and we’re running the ball.’ And I’m like, ‘Can we run by them’ and they’re like, ‘No, man, they keep backing up and backing up and backing up, we’ve just got to keep blocking.’ ”
But it wasn’t like Florida couldn’t pass when it wanted to. The Gator offense, quite simply, dominated the game.
Just like the old days.
There were times during this game when I wondered if this flawed team might see the momentum Mullen has built come to a screeching halt with a loss to a team nobody thought should be on the field with Florida.
But in the end, 11 wins.
In the end, the offense had to keep answering.
In the end, Mullen did the opposite of what a lot of coaches would do with his play calls.
In the end, the momentum is still flowing.
It doesn’t matter if some of you didn’t like the way they won. It doesn’t matter if you thought they should win by three touchdowns. And for those of you who are not satisfied with this season, you have a right to your opinion.
But if you had been on the floor of Hard Rock Stadium, watching Billy Gonzales in a big group hug with his receivers or Trask posing for pictures with teammates or the players singing the fight song with great gusto, well, you might have felt different.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.