Dooley: Gators’ balance in win over Cavaliers keeps momentum flowing toward 2020

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Florida quarterback Kyle Trask skips through the end zone on a touchdown run in the fourth quarter Monday against Virginia at the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. [ALLEN EYESTONE/The Palm Beach Post]

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. 

His orange?

“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 pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Congratulations to our Gators for finishing a GREAT season with a gutsy win against a team that NEVER gave up. I’ll take this flawed 11th win as a fair representation of a still flawed team that has been taught well by CDM how to win ALL the games they’re supposed to win. That is the culture change that necessarily had to come BEFORE a team can legitimately compete for championships in FBS college football.

    That said, this 11-win Gator team’s flaws were on full display last night, especially when compared to a 13-win team using the same opponent in back-to-back games for the comparison. There’s still a ways to go before this Gator team is ready for the CFP.

    First, Kyle Trask is, hands down, the best QB to play in Hogtown in a decade, BUT he’s no Trevor Lawrence. He doesn’t have the arm strength, nor the running ability, and it showed last night. Kyle played well enough to win this game against this flawed UVA team, but he couldn’t consistently take advantage of what they gave him because of his physical limitations. He’s better than Bryce Perkins and certainly better than the guy he replaced, but he’s clearly not as good as Lawrence, Fields and Burrow.

    The Gator OL played MUCH better in this game and Kyle Pitts FINALLY made some good blocks on key running plays. However, the Gator OL NEVER dominated the line of scrimmage against a UVA DL that was TOTALLY dominated by the Clemson OL in their previous game.

    Lastly, and most disturbingly, the Gators have a talented, young defense that finished ranked 8th in the nation in 2019. Very good, but NOT Clemson good. Getting carved up by a good QB while sitting in soft zones all night has become the lasting image of the limitations of the 2019 Gator defense. Those young DB’s have to grow up and more backfield depth is needed to make sure that losing a C.J. McWilliams (to injury) doesn’t mean losing control over a good opponent’s passing game, particularly on third and long vs. a good QB with good receivers, which will be ALL they’ll ever face IF they end up in the SEC Championship game and/or the CFP Final Four.

    Enjoy this OB victory and the wrap-up of this great 2019 season Gators. You’ve earned it! However, there’s A LOT of work to be done come spring IF you want 2020 to be an improvement over 2019.

    GO GATORS!!!

  2. Solid column — with particularly good insight on our selfless senior receivers — right up to the last two “it doesn’t matter” paragraphs. The ongoing Pat vs Gator Fans spat steams right along into the new year. Certainly, Pat has a right to admonish fans who are upset with a flawed win (excellent distillation above by StL). And fans who were blowing a gasket that we gave up 28 points to Virginia have a right to wonder where the “elite” defense was that this newspaper kept talking about. Seriously, Arnold or Robbie or whoever keeps bringing this up as a story theme, let’s put the “Is the Gator defense elite” angle to rest. As a paying subscriber, what I would have found more interesting than the parting shot by Pat in those last two graphs was, oh, say, perhaps some insight from the defensive coordinator on what the strategy was last night and the thinking behind it. If he wasn’t made available to comment, I would have like to have known that.

    Be that as it may, here’s my New Year’s Wish List:
    * Less ink devoted to the Pat vs Gator Fans tiff. I get it — Pat likes his “No one suffers victory like Gator fans” line. Cute. But it’s old, so old, and this whining takes up space that could be devoted to far more compelling insight.
    * Jon Greenard comes back for his sixth year. (I know, I know — it’s a WISH list!)
    * Our back-up QB gets to throw a pass in 2020. Hang in there, Emory, your time is definitely coming, and it seems to be bursting with potential.
    * A good landing spot for Felipe Franks.
    * Good health for all Gators.
    Happy 2020, all!

    • Hear, hear PVB… on everything you said EXCEPT that wish for Pat to whine less about “ungrateful” Gator fans. Where’s the fun in THAT for us “ungrateful” Gator fans who really enjoy hitting back at Pat’s whining???

      BTW Pat, do you believe Michigan should rank higher than our Mighty Gators going into 2020 IF they beat Satan’s Evil Empire in Orlando tomorrow??? Low blow, I know, but meant in jest!

      HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!!!

    • “‘No one suffers victory like Gator fans’ line. Cute. But it’s old, so old, and this whining takes up space that could be devoted to far more compelling insight.”

      Unfortunately, it’s also STILL very relevant! To wit, check our the first post by Mr. Wazlle, who (as pointed out by poster “Jack”) appears to have given the points and lost his a _ _, OR, as I theorize, CDM decided to celebrate last night’s victory by cruising over to Mr. Wazlle’s house and p*ssing in his cornflakes this morning:

      https://www.gatorsports.com/2019/12/sweet-success-gators-reach-11-win-season-with-orange-bowl-decision-over-virginia/

      • There’s always going to be people who are unsatisfied in all aspects of life. The fan base of the UF football program has some of these folks — just like every other successful program. Consider these comments: “And to you people who suggest it felt like a loss, y’all need to check yourself too. I’ve been here 16 years and for all those people out there who want to complain about five wins in a row and by winning by three touchdowns, man that’s shameful. That’s a lack of respect for our program and a lack of respect for the effort that these players and coaches put in.” That wasn’t Steve Spurrier, it wasn’t Urban Meyer, it was Dabo Swinney. There are all sorts of fans in this world and for better or worse, one of the attendant factors of a highly successful program is that some fans — I’d bet a small minority — will bemoan any victory margin that doesn’t exceed their expectations. My point: Why give any attention to them when there’s much more interesting things to write about?

    • Greenard coming back is definitely wishful thinking. But it would have been nice. To transfer in like he did, and immediately become a leader is amazing. There’s not a selfish bone in his body; witness him willing himself back into the game after tweaking his ankle last night. He is the anti-CJ.

      He was only here a season, but in my mind he is greatly responsible for how this one turned out, and he should be fondly remembered by the Gator Nation. I know I will…

        • How do you think JG will fare in The League, STL? He seems to be a “tweener” kind of like Michael Sam was at Mizzou a few years back. I’m not sure if or how much Sam’s sexual orientation might have been a detriment to him, but he never made an NFL roster after having been SEC Defensive P-o-Y.

          I wish JG much more success going forward.

          • Michael Sam didn’t make it in the NFL because he wasn’t big enough to play DE and wasn’t strong or aggressive enough to play LB or special teams. His sexual orientation had nothing to do with his lack of NFL success.

  3. Well at times the defense was scary (very soft pass coverage) and the offensive line collapsed a few times but overall, this team finds ways to win. They tend to play to their competition and for a short while looked like they hadn’t practiced much for the game. However, I will always take 11 wins and an opportunity to cheer for the orange and blue. Good game and good way to send off the seniors. Couldn’t be more happy for them and thanks to the entire team for giving us Gator fans a really good season.

    BTW, Pat is just doing his job and calling things like he sees them. I enjoy reading Pat’s columns and don’t ever take offense to what he says about the fans. We are spoiled and want to win every game by 100. I was no different last night wringing my hands in angst wondering at times what Grantham and Mullen were thinking. That is of course until their decisions lead to great plays… that is why we are all sitting on a couch watching the game and not standing on the sidelines with a headset on. Thanks Pat and Robbie for all of your articles this season. I definitely looked forward to reading a daily article on the team at breakfast. Now to drop another keurig coffee packet into the machine for cup #2. Thanks wife for the Christmas gift. Drinking even more coffee now. Happy New Year everyone and Go Gators!

    • I hear what you’re saying, Ocala. I’m a Pat fan in general (and Robbie, too, otherwise I wouldn’t pay for Gatorsports) and enjoy the insight and wit that pepper his columns. And I have no problem when he or Robbie pick against the Gators. That’s calling it as they see it, and that’s what any journalist should do. The ending of this column just struck me as off. Eleven wins, including a major bowl? That’s terrific. The selflessness of the senior receivers? That’s an anecdote that says it all about the culture Mullen has built — no small feat in this day and age. The space devoted to Perine? Awesome! So deserving! That’s all great content celebrating great Gators! The “it doesn’t matter” language? Thud. Why include that? Coming at it another way, if negative views don’t matter, why recognize them? Life is short. Celebrate the good.

  4. How many times over the years have we heard Dooley say bowl games are “just for the fans“, and now this game was huge to keep “the momentum still flowing?”

    Bowl games are not “just” for the fans, as last night proves. Especially the top-tier ones matter greatly to top programs (or those hoping to be), contrary to the damn NFL and sports media influences encouraging players to think otherwise and bail on non-playoff bowls.

    This was a great, hard fought game, and the fans truly appreciate all you players for sticking all the way to the end of a special night. This win was great in its own right, and no doubt a great memory especially for the many players who played their last game. Thank you all, Go Gators!!