Updated: Feb 4
MIAMI GARDENS, FL—As Florida Gators players tore into victory oranges and donned their championships hats, the clock clicked past midnight, turning the calendar to December 31. New Years Eve in South Florida is hot and muggy, swampy one might say, making it a fitting setting for the Gators to write the final chapter of their story this year.
It was a storybook ending for the No. 9 Florida Gators and senior running back Lamical Perine as they defeated No. 24 Virginia Cavaliers 36-28 for the 2019 Capital One Orange Bowl. It wasn’t anywhere near perfect, as no real story is, and began with an epic statement, then experienced the requisite trails before ending with a well earned tribute for the victors and the hero.
“I really want to congratulate our team,” said an emotional head coach Dan Mullen after the win.
“I'm really proud of our players. Just under a year ago, this team was born, and we talked about going from four wins to 10 wins was special, but to go from 10 wins to 11 is going to be a lot harder, and those guys bought into it. They started working last January, and they worked, they grinded all season long in everything that they did.”
Leading in to the Capital One Orange Bowl, the Cavaliers talked of wanting to shut down the Gators run game; wanting to make quarterback Kyle Trask (24-39, 305 yds, 1TD, 1INT; 8-37, 1TD rushing) and the depth of wideouts beat them through the air. This seemed counterproductive when considering Florida is the statistically best passing offense the Cavs have faced this season.
*Clemson was ranked higher in this category when facing the Wahoo’s in the ACC Championship but fell below Florida after the Fiesta Bowl.
Yet as Hoos linebacker Charles Snowden told reporters over the weekend, “Their running back [Lamical Perine] is one of the best we’ve seen so we know he’s a great running back so we’re not going in and thinking just stop the pass, stop the pass. You still have to stop the run.”
So it was ironic that it was Perine who delivered the first dagger. On the third play of the game from Florida’s own 39-yard line, quarterback Kyle Trask handed off to the senior back who found a lane through the b-gap and turned on what has become legendary speed for the 61-yard house call.
After a Virginia three and out, the Gators next offensive possession ended when Kyle Trask was hit as he threw and picked off by Nick Grant. The Hoo’s struck immediately from the 34-yard line with a rainbow toss from Bryce Perkins to Terrell Jana that knotted everything at seven.
The Gators responded with a methodical 13 play drive that included a 19-yard punishing run from Lamical Perine and 17-yard keeper from Emory Jones (4 rushes-32 yards). It was capped with another Perine moment, this time a toss from Trask to the running back. Perine—who has eyes on him from NFL scouts—stepped out of a tackle, turned up field and showed another burst of speed for the 16-yard receiving touchdown.
Perine being there to answer is part and parcel with what he’s done all season according to Mullen.
“Lamical comes back for his senior year and everyone is like, ‘OK, he's one of the top running backs in the SEC.’ He is. I think you saw that tonight. Everyone gets caught—'well, his stats say this' or just what the stats say. But you know what, you look at every time we needed a big run during the season, he came up with a lot of big runs during the season.
“He also showed he's probably one of the top receiving backs in the country coming out of the backfield….instead of worrying about, ‘hey, where are my rushing stats,’ he worried about ‘am I doing what I need to do to help the team win and to be the great player on the team when the game is on the line that they can go to me, run or throw or protect the quarterback, and I'm going to be ready to make a play?’”
A Ventrell Miller sack on Bryce Perkins on 3rd down gave the Gators the ball back with just over seven minutes to play in the first half. Florida—who won the time of possession—then highlighted their seniors starting with a 37-yard gain courtesy of Van Jefferson. When Trask released the ball, Jefferson wasn’t even in the area of the throw. But the expert route running senior seamlessly jogged in for the catch before turning upwards and flipping the field.
As the drive stalled, Dan Mullen elected to go for it on 4th and eight. Trask found senior Freddie Swain over the middle for an 11-yard gain that kept things moving. On the 10-yard line, a handoff to Perine sent the back on an easy breeze into pay dirt. By that point, Lamical Perine had 21 points to himself.
Perine would finish with 181 all purpose yards—138 rushing, 43 receiving—and three touchdowns. He looked to have a fourth for an Orange Bowl record, before replay determined he stepped out at the 1-yard line. Kyle Trask finished that one off with a 1-yard rushing touchdown. But it was Perine’s night and that was solidified as the senior lifted his offensive MVP trophy.
It was loaded down with oranges and Perine jokingly griped it was much heavier than he was prepared for; but it was well earned as quarterback Feleipe Franks bragged for his teammate after the win.
“Lamical deserves everything that he’s gotten, you know and to see, he’s such a selfless player. I told him before the game, he’s such a selfless player and to see him come out here and see him do the performance that he does, he deserves every bit of it. He deserves every bit of praise, that trophy and everybody congratulating him cause he sat back and he’s been selfless all year long and he deserves every bit of praise that he gets.”
Perine joined Percy Harvin as the only Gator to have a rushing and receiving touchdown in a bowl game. Although now, Perine has bypassed Harvin as he’s done it in two—this 2019 Orange Bowl and last season’s Peach Bowl win over Michigan. By nights end, Florida had found a groove with their running game. Putting up 305 yards passing has become par for the course on the back half of the Gators season so it was the 244 yards on the ground that really stood out.
“They played really soft all night long, almost forcing us to run the ball the whole time,” commented Mullen.
“I think a lot of times this year, the teams have focused on stopping our run and we haven't been great running the ball. But we've been really good passing it and you get into games, and I'm like, OK, they are going to stop the pass, and we'd try to be balanced, and I'm like, no, they want to stop the run, we'll just keep throwing it. And tonight to be honest with you, they finally—we faced a team that decided they were going to try to stop the pass and drop a lot of guys into coverage.
“We were still able to throw when we needed to. But to put ourselves in position to be able to run the ball and take what they were giving us, and I think Kyle—we have a bunch of 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...we've just got to keep blocking.’ But it just shows the selfless manner of our team. They're there, and guys want to win the football game and do whatever it takes to win the game, and we're going to take what the defense gives us."
“That’s a testimony to the linemen and the running backs,” compliments wide receiver Tre Grimes (1-7yds).
“Everyone has their moment, everyone has their time. It was just Perine’s and the running backs time tonight. They went out there, they did their thing, they balled, they had a phenomenal game. Perine won MVP, I couldn’t be more happy for him. He’s a blessed dude and he’s gonna do a phenomenal job in the NFL.”
The Gators defense found themselves immediately with their hands full thanks to the elusive Bryce Perkins. UVA’s quarterback came into the game personally responsible for 78% of his team’s offense through the regular season and ACC Championship game. He continued that Monday night throwing for 323 yards and serving as the team’s leading rusher, albeit the latter with a mere 24 yards. It was through the air as he went 28-40 though that gave Todd Grantham’s group fits.
On Sunday before the game, Gators coach Dan Mullen said of Perkins, “the scariest one is the plays that he makes after the play has broken down. You know, to sit there and say, okay, we stop the run or we stop the pass and all of a sudden he made somebody miss, he scrambled around, he got out of the pocket, he broke contain, and now you have a guy that is a great athlete in the open field making plays happen.”
Fast forward to Monday night, in front of 65,157 fans, that is precisely what Perkins did, time and time again. He broke away from the pocket more often than not, creating organic bootlegs that gave his receivers time to break from their coverage.
“He's slippery. He’s like playing a running back, back there,” explained Gators BUCK Jon Greenard.
“We kind of knew going into the game we just had to make a couple adjustments in the beginning, basically learning how to rush against him and what he wants to do. Hats off to him. He made our jobs a lot harder, so hats off to him, but hey, we got a W, so ain't got to worry about him no more.”
Yet when it mattered most, the defense stepped up to keep the score differential wide enough. UVA was within the redzone, within a feasible striking distance of the lead and more than five minutes left in the game. David Reese II (five tackles, 1.5 for loss, one quarterback hurry) and T.J. Slaton (one tackle, 0.5 for loss) tackled Wayne Taulapapa for a loss of four yards, forcing a 3rd and seven from the UF 17. As Perkins looked for a receiver near the endzone, freshman Kaiir Elam turned and made the interception he had baited Perkins into.
The Hoos were able to add another touchdown late, courtesy of Hasise Dubois (10-83, 2TD) but Gators receiver Freddie Swain recovered UVA’s onside kick attempt, snuffing out any last minute hope. Meaning Elam’s touchdown saving interception ended up being the back breaker. With corner CJ Henderson foregoing the bowl game as he prepares for the NFL Draft, it was a perfect night for Elam to further cement himself as the future at the position, something that seems a given when considering how he broke down his interception.
“I knew 8 was their bigger, big body guy so I just knew that if I got my head around I would be able to just play the ball cause I knew, he’s not really, he wasn’t really used to do any routes and stuff expect for like fly, so I just used my head and just made the play.”
Now, the Florida Gators return home. They wait to see which draft eligible juniors decide to join Henderson in the NFL and finish out the 2020 recruiting class in February. They will do all of this building on their first 11 win season since 2012.
It was a storybook ending for the 2019 Florida Gators. Far from a fairy tale but an epic quest on the search for greatness and living out a dream. As Lamical Perine walked off the field for the final time as a Florida Gator, he summed it up best.
“This has been a great journey…this is all I every lived for, being a Gator.”